The Church Has Always Known Theological Controversy (A Bit on the Peterson Thing)

athanasisu“Not again.”

That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.

Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.

I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.

What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.

A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”

To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.

You can read the rest of this piece over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Experienced Pain, Truth, And Developing Doctrine

job and friendsI recently saw a discussion online about hell. In the course of things, one person noted their childhood trauma connected with teaching on this doctrine. Another (or possibly the same) went to suggest they couldn’t possibly see how growing up with a particular view of hell didn’t lead to childhood trauma. The doctrine itself was inherently trauma-causing and the implication was that this in itself counted strongly against its truth. Others chimed in, both for and against, either disagreeing or trying to defend the doctrine in question.

I didn’t have time to jump in at the moment, but I’ve been chewing on the issue for a bit. Not so much the doctrine of hell, but more generally what role considerations about a doctrine’s adverse psychological effects ought to play in doctrinal construction. So I wanted to test out a few tentative thoughts on the issue.

Words Matter. Let me begin by saying I am not doubting the experiences of trauma of those who were claiming it in that conversation. I don’t know some of them and I don’t have reason to doubt the ones I did know.

I will say, I do think there is a general tendency towards carelessness with words on this point, though. A friend of mine who is doing work in the area of trauma and theology has helpfully pointed out that words like “trauma”, “abuse”, “trigger”, and so forth, have specific, technical meanings related to qualitatively different sorts of psychological conditions and events. This is missed when we sloppily overuse them and apply them broadly to any generally unpleasant or disturbing experience (as is sadly common today).

This is unhelpful because it can illegitimately (even if unintentionally) be used to gain unfair and manipulative leverage in conversations by those who are not actually trauma sufferers. What’s more, in so doing, it actually minimizes and waters down the experiences of said, actual trauma sufferers.

Be Careful Not to Universalize Your Particular Experience. On that point, while I wouldn’t for a moment want to ignore or deny their experiences of dread and psychological distress connected to the doctrine, I would also caution we mustn’t deny the experience of those who did not have those same experiences. Because it seems empirically not the case that growing up with this particular view of hell is universally and necessarily traumatic, even if it sadly was so for some.

I’ll dangerously use myself as an example. I grew up being taught some version of that same doctrine from a very early age. It wasn’t something my parents or Sunday School teachers dwelt on obsessively, but they didn’t ignore it. And while I remember a short season in junior high being quite worried about judgment (I had been cursing at school and it haunted me at night), I eventually came to an assurance of the gospel and it passed. It’s not to say I don’t still find the reality of it troubling, or worth wrestling with—much the way I do many other awful realities. But it is not something that has left a lasting, psychic scar on me. And I know a great many of my friends and families and members of various churches who could say the same. What’s more, it’s entirely plausible that a larger survey would reveal the non-universality of this doctrinally-driven trauma far beyond my anecdotal evidence. Indeed, if we expand that survey across the globe and across the history of the Church, that seems manifestly obvious.

I suppose I am making a version of the argument against cultural imperialism in theology. One of the things that’s become clear over the years is that people from other times, cultures, and places read the Bible and experience Christian teaching in different ways than affluent, Post-Enlightenment Westerners. Go back a thousand years in church history. Or maybe a thousand miles across on an ocean. Texts we find shocking, they do not. Texts they find shocking, we do not. And it would be presumptuous to assume that our cultural-driven theological instincts automatically give us more insight. They don’t necessarily give us less insight, either. But considerations like that ought to give us pause.

My point is that we similarly shouldn’t be psychological or experiential imperialists, assuming the texts or doctrines which trouble us particularly, will trouble or shock others in the same way. There is a certain intellectual and empathetic myopia involved there—one which I have found myself guilty of on numerous occasions—which needs to be reckoned with. My experiences, my position, my place, my psychological make-up incline me in a particular direction theologically. But so do others. And it’s not that I need to always assume I’m wrong, but I need to acknowledge that. And this is true not only for positive experiences, but also negative ones and how we related them to our doctrine.

One example that comes to mind is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering and evil. Some find the idea that God has a purpose (either immediate or mediate) behind allowing their pain and suffering—the loss of a child to early death—to be one of horror and disgust. Others find it absolutely necessary to maintain any sort of faith in God’s goodness in the face of the exact same tragedy. At that point, we have two instances of sufferers reacting to the very same teaching in diametrically opposed fashion. Whose psychological experience with that teaching should be weighted more strongly? Whose comfort is more trustworthy?

Truth Can Be Troubling. Following on this, we must keep in mind that the truth of an idea, may indeed be troubling—even traumatic. Growing up on a mountain, a child may be taught to take care not to shout too loudly in certain areas lest they trigger a rock slide, or an avalanche. They may then come dwell on that idea incessantly and obsessively. This is sad and possibly psychologically traumatic. Now, this may be a good reason to not live on that mountain, but it would not be a reason for rejecting the belief that avalanches are a liability in in their locale. The truth of the reality is fairly independent of whether it is potentially traumatic to believe it.

I would go on to point out, though, that even good truth, inappropriately introduced or dwelt on, could probably cause trauma, or at least have adverse psychological effects. Let’s be a bit Freudian and use sex as an example. That nearly every child has been begotten by an act of sexual love between a mother and a father is a good and beautiful truth. That God created sexual love as a pleasurable experience is as well. Both are good for people to know.

Yet we can all agree that exposure to pornography at a young age (or at all) would be a wrong, distorting, and harmful way to learn about them. Or, turning away from the immoral, it seems quite possibly traumatic to be introduced to these truths at the age of 7 by walking into your parent’s bedroom at the wrong moment, forcing a subsequent explanation. This could easily have adverse effects that, in the right sort of child, lead to sad, unhealthy fixations later on in life. But this being the case by no means counts as an argument against the good truth of the reality of sex. It is an argument for bedroom locks, discretion, and a game-plan for talking to your child about sex in an appropriate fashion.

A Diagnostic, Not a Criterion. But then is there any place someone’s psychological experience of a teaching should play in the way we think about it? I think there is. But we must not confuse what kind. I would suggest that it at least plays the role of a diagnostic light on your dashboard, warning you that something needs to be addressed.

Now, what needs to be addressed is not always immediately clear. Someone might experience great distress—unhealthy pain—at a doctrine for a few reasons. First, yes, the teaching itself is possibly flawed. I’m not saying that’s never a possibility. It definitely is. Second, it could also be that the teaching is not flawed but it is being taught and applied in a harmful and unhelpful fashion which needs to be addressed.

For instance, it’s possible to take doctrines and distort them—even wonderful doctrines about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace can be used abusively. Here the social and moral context of the teaching proves toxic and that toxicity affects how it is being received. Or, it could be that a doctrine is being taught not wrongly, or falsely, or “abusively”, but is being over-emphasized or without being properly set in the context of the rest of Christian truth.

One friend pointed out that doctrines like hell, or the fear of losing your salvation (or that you’ve never had it) can take on an extra psychological pressure in environments where much emphasis is laid on having a visible “conversion” experience, a second blessing, etc. The monastic context in which Luther struggled against the judgement of God might be another. Or one thinks of Kierkegaard’s testimony about the effect his father’s tumultuous personality paired with a pietistic focus on Christ’s sufferings hand on him as a young child. An individual doctrine isn’t doing the work here alone, but rather the way it functions alongside everything else.

All this to say, widespread experience of adverse psychological effects associated with a doctrine can definitely alert us of a problem we need to address. But it’s not immediately clear the solution is doctrinal revision. Often it is a call to greater pastoral discernment about the uses of doctrine, not the doctrines themselves. As the old maxim has it, “improper use does not nullify proper use“, but we can’t be so busy defending good doctrine we never stop to think about how to use it properly.

Avoiding Projection. To sort of round things out, I suppose one worry at the back of my mind is that an instinct to rewrite, or to tweak, Christian teachings in order to make sure it’s always psychologically affirming in some direct way, can turn our theology into a species of projection. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said all theology was basically our anthropology magnified to the Nth degree and then projected up onto the screen of heaven. Freud makes a version of the same argument: God as wish-fulfillment. Believing in God is the comfort of having an ideal earthly father, simply projected into eternity.

And the thing is—when it comes to a lot of theology—they have a point. Much modern theology explicitly buys the premise that we’re basically just coming up with revisable metaphors for God that work for us and contributing to “flourishing”—however Late Moderns have come to define the term. In other words, my worry is conceptual idolatry, despite the admirable motive of concerns for those in pain.

All of this comes around to how do theology for the Church. It’s an obvious truism that all theology is done by humans, from particular perspectives, who inevitably have their favored theological paradigms informed by their experiences. But are we at least trying to give priority to God’s self-revelation, his self-testimony in the Gospel and recorded in Scripture? Are we at least attempting to let God’s Word beyond our experiences speak a word of comfort about God into our experiences? Or do we explicitly make our variable, subjective, and relative experiences, cultures, and intuitions function as a normative authority or criterion?

Again, I’m not saying we never rethink doctrine, or how we’re teaching in light of people’s adverse psychological experiences. What I am saying is that we must make sure that these realities drive us to humble ourselves before Christ’s voice in Scripture—to hear what we may have missed, to have him clarify what we have muddled, or to have him reaffirm what we might be tempted to dispense with in our haste and pain. For ultimately it is his words–even those which initially confuse and confound us–which heal our deepest wounds.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Easy “Wisdom” of Cynicism

I have been thinking about cynicism the last couple of weeks. (I have piece coming out in a couple of months on cynicism for CT, so I won’t repeat that bit.) The thing that struck me this morning, and I tweeted about, was its appeal.

I think, teach, and write for a living. I’m supposed to know some things. To have insight into either Scripture, or God, or the world. Wisdom, of sorts.

The thing about cynicism is that it offers an easy shortcut to the appearance of wisdom.

“Seeing through” the stated reasons and motives of others is a particularly prized form of insight in our context. (We’re all Nietzscheans, squinting to get at what’s really going on.)

And so if I’m in a dispute with someone, it’s pretty easy for me to come up with a fairly plausible rationale for why someone believes, says, or does something other than the one they’ve stated.

“Sure, you say it’s because of Scripture, but also isn’t your job riding on you believing that?”

“Sure, you say it’s because you’ve honestly changed your mind, but also isn’t it convenient that most cultural winds blow that way today?”

“Sure, you say you’re now X because of intellectual reasons, but aren’t you also mostly just believing what’s gonna frustrate your dad?”

“Sure, you say you’re totally committed to the cause, but also RTs?”

I can come up with longer, more sophisticated versions of these sorts of readings on the fly now, and build ’em out to make them seem pretty plausible. At least to the people who already agree with me.

But are they true? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just stories I tell myself to flatter my own beliefs and look smart because, you know, I’m not getting suckered.

All this to say that default cynicism isn’t the same thing as biblical discernment. Discernment seeks out truth and falsehood. It sees as much as it sees through. Ironically enough, being too cynical can make you undiscerning, rendering false judgments, leaving you open being deceived, not positively, but negatively.

In other words, being “wise as a serpent”,  is a lot harder than thinking everybody’s a liar all the time.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

“They Do Not Deserve You”; Wonder Woman and Soteriology

wonder woman(Spoiler Alert: The following notes assume big plot twists and a knowledge of the film.)

My wife and I saw Wonder Woman last night, and thank God, it was a good flick. I was worried the hype was just, well, hype, but it turned out it was a really solid superhero film and will be seen by most as the best of the DC franchise. It probably is, but I actually enjoyed Man of Steel and did-not-hate-kinda-liked most of Batman v. Superman (the extended edition, which actually makes way more sense).

In any case, as is my tendency, I had theological thoughts about the film as I was watching.  I mean, I am a Systematic theology student.

Still, superhero flicks lend themselves to this sort of analysis, since they’re explicitly concerned with quasi-divine figures rescuing humanity from destruction. They, therefore, typically contain an implicit soteriology (view of salvation), and therefore a corresponding anthropology (view of humanity) and hamartiology (view of sin, or what’s wrong with the world). I know it’s the ultimate cliche to find “Christ-figures” all over the films, but with Superhero flicks, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Wonder Woman is no different. Indeed, it’s quite explicit about these things. One of the main plot tropes is Diana’s encounter with the world of men off the Island of Themascira. It’s what generates much of the humor (confused outsider a la Splash), as well as the moral energy. Yes, Diana is on a mission to defeat Ares, god of war, whom she believes is behind the carnage of World War I. But she is also on a moral journey; she is a goddess learning what it means to be a savior in the world of men.

One thing she has to learn is an alternative anthropology. In her myths about the creation of men, she learned that they are basically good, but they have been perverted and twisted towards violence by the powerful sway of Ares. She thinks, “If I can just kill Ares, men will be released to be good.” In other words, her hamartiology is reduced to a demonology: “the devil made them do it.”

And so whenever she encounters duplicitousness in the world of men–the lies and cowardice of even the “good guys”—she declares, “You too have been corrupted by Ares. You’re under his influence as well.”

A key movement of her moral journey involves recognizing the problem is much deeper. She comes to realize that humanity itself, apart from Ares, has evil within it. Humanity wars against itself, regardless of Ares, and in this war there are no pure figures. At the key hinge dialogue in the film, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) struggles to make clear to her, “Maybe we’re all to blame.” In other words, it’s the flesh, not just the devil at work in human evil.

Actually, this is where the demonology of the film gets interesting. Ares, as it turns out, is not the obvious devil figure you’re led to expect through the film. Ares turns out to be a moral misanthrope. And it is in his role as an Accuser of men that he makes his case to Diana against saving them. He hates men because he sees their weakness, their evil, their inherent proclivity towards hate. He tells her he has never had to control them–he has only had to suggest, to whisper, to stoke ember of evil that were already there in order. He has only fomented the war in order that men might destroy themselves–receiving in themselves the due penalty for their corruption, as it were.

It’s here that the goddess must learn the lesson of grace. Before she goes off the Island to fight, her mother Hippolyta tells her, “They do not deserve you.” She’s pure. She’s good. She doesn’t lie. As soon as she sees the good, she is immediately moved to pursue it.

And it is precisely for this reason, she must learn the lesson of grace. She has to learn why she’s a hero, why she ought to struggle to save humanity.  Before she thought it was because they’re basically good, deserving victims of Ares’s oppression. And while that latter statement is true, they are victims of Ares’s machinations, they are also victimizers. “They do not deserve you.”

And so in that same climactic scene, as the weight of human evil strikes Diana, Steve must play the role of advocate of sorts arguing, “It’s not about what they deserve–it’s about what you believe.” If humanity is going to be saved, it can’t be a matter of merit. They have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of Diana, in that regard. In which case, it must be a matter of mercy and grace. It has to be a decision Diana makes beyond desert.

Now, here the statement “it’s about what you believe” is a little limp. Pressing deeper, reflecting on Steve’s character, his valiant sacrifice, and the other men she has become friends with, she recognizes there is more to humanity than the evil within. There is love and goodness as well. The image of Zeus, if you will. And so she decides that is worth fighting for, even if humanity doesn’t deserve her.

This is one of those places where, coming from a Christian theological perspective, I thought they could have pressed deeper. Because, narratively, it’s not merely a matter of what she believes about humanity, but who she is for humanity. She was created in order to save humanity from Ares, from war, from the hell they make, apart from consideration of their merit. In that sense, it is about Diana’s purpose and the consistency of character as good, merciful, and just; it’s about the obligations that she has to be herself in the face of evil. Diana saves men, because Diana was created to be a savior.

Of course, Diana is not Jesus. And obviously, this wasn’t a “Christian” movie–for all sorts of reasons. All the same, for a being a comic flick about a hero rooted in a Greco-Roman, pagan mythology, there was a lot of theological good sense that makes me curious how it will be received by our friends and neighbors.

Well, that’s about it for now.

 

On “Listening” to Millennials (and What Does that Even Mean)

(Yes, I’m sorry, this is a piece about Millennials.)

listeningHonestly, I feel bad for churches and older leaders trying to get a handle on reaching Millennials. One of the biggest things the recent literature tells churches to do is “listen” to Millennials. But that can be fairly confusing.

For instance, one very clear message we’ve heard for years from both experts and Millennial spokespersons is that the Church has gotten “too political.” By marrying the Church to political causes and parties, we’ve turned off younger Christians to the gospel who see it as just another ideology. Okay. Check. “Chill on the political stuff, and stick to the gospel.”

Then the 2016 election cycle happens. And now, it’s also suddenly very clear “political silence is complicity.” Those very same experts (voices of a generation), assure us Millennials will not be satisfied with churches that stay on the sidelines and remain quiet in the face of injustice. So which is it? Be political or not?

Or maybe Millennials are just now figuring out what they really wanted was a different politics, but politics nonetheless?

It’s tempting to think of Jesus’ quip about the fickleness of his own generation, “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” (Luke 7:32) When John came preaching, they called him prude, but now they call Jesus a party animal. So which is it?

Now that’s probably not the fairest read of the situation. Maybe there was an underlying principle all along. Maybe the problem wasn’t politics, but partisanship. Maybe the situation has changed dramatically. (I think there’s probably a good case for that.) But apparent turnarounds like this raise some of the questions involved in “listening” to Millennials.

For one thing, which Millennials are we listening to? New York Magazine just had a piece highlighting the differences between older and younger Millennials. Another recent study of Canada’s youth split my generation up into six types like “New Traditionalists”, “Critical Counter-culturalists”, or “Bros and Brittanys”, who all have seriously varied moral, social, and economic orientations. It seems listening to these diverse, often conflicting segments of a large generation would yield wildly different results.

Even more importantly, what does “listening” even mean?

Learning might be part of it. No generation has an exclusive premium on truth, or an unbiased read of the spiritual landscape. Not even Boomers or Traditionalists, who can plausibly claim the wisdom of experience, should be closed off from learning from younger generations.

Indeed, that seems to be a lot of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Millennials are creative, adaptive, digital natives and so are a great resource for forging new paths to tackle the problems of the Church. More than that, they’re not interested in going to Churches that don’t take that seriously.

While I think there’s something to this, it’s important for Churches not to confuse an invitation to listen to Millennials for a demand to cater, or even worse obey them. (“Listen or we’ll leave” seems to be implied threat sometimes).

The fact of the matter is we’re young and we really could be wrong about a lot. We’re still learning and growing. We often don’t even know what we want, much less what we need. To resolve to “listen” in that sense, quickly acquiescing and accommodating every impatient demand, would be a recipe for folly–the naïve leading the blackmailed.

What’s more, while we might be its future, we’re not the whole of the Church, nor will we ever be. Joel prophesied that in the last days, when the Spirit is poured out, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (2:28). Both groups will be doing this at one and the same time—the young and the old are empowered by the same Spirit to serve.

I want to suggest, though, that much listening to Millennials (at least by older generations) involves an element of spiritual parenting. Paul commands parents not to “exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

This begins to get at an important dynamic of the listening process. There’s nothing more exasperating as a child than feeling like nobody’s listening to you. Even if you don’t get your way, simply being taken seriously as a member of the family goes a long way. I do think that Millennials need to be taken seriously—not condescended to—but treated as real, contributing members in any church community. (At least the ones who commit to actually being members.) They’re not only the future of the Church, they are a powerful part of its present.

Secondly, churches need to take Paul’s admonition to train and instruct the next generation in the Lord. If you don’t know where Millennials are, what concerns they have, what they commonly struggle with, you probably won’t be very adept at instructing them in the way of the Lord. And you should be instructing them—to walk with the Lord, read Scripture, pray, evangelize, serve the poor, work their jobs, etc. That’s just the task of discipleship.

Listening also allows you to know when to hand over responsibility at the right time and in the right ways. I suppose we can file this under “training”, but older leaders need to see it as part of their task to prepare Millennials to teach and preach, to lead studies, to work alongside deacons to bless the congregation, and so forth. This involves actually inviting them to do some of these things. (I mean, this shouldn’t be that crazy as some of us are already planting and leading churches anyways.)

Still, in established congregations that involves risk. But all parenting does. Which is why all of this listening needs to be shot through with prayer, trusting we will hear and be guided by the Father who wants to see his all of his children “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Euphemisms for Sin: You’re Not Just “Broken”

sinChristians have become pretty good at thinking of euphemisms for sin (our acts and our condition). It’s fairly common to hear from pulpits and in worship tunes about Jesus dealing with our brokenness, weakness, failures, mistakes, and so on, often in a therapeutic and medical mode. And I think, so far as it goes, that’s not all that bad.

People lament it, but terms like those can be helpful in a number of ways. For one thing, they speak an initially non-threatening or relatable language to people for whom the term “sin” has lost its sense. As Francis Spufford points out, for many, the word ‘sin’ connotes nothing more than chocolates you shouldn’t eat and lingerie.

Second, they can help broaden our conception of sin as both acts that we do and a condition that we’re in. Many have no idea what it is to be a sinner, but surveying their lives, their choices, the chaos without and within, they do know something is radically broken.

Also, I think they can help us understand that element of sin that makes us pitiable and “miserable.” Not all sin is experienced as this conscious, active rebellion. It feels like something we fall into, no matter how hard we run away or would like to avoid it. There’s something about the human condition in sin which makes it sorry and deserving of compassion. Sin is misery and wretchedness (Rom. 7:24). There is something broken about us.

What’s more, much that falls in this overall category of “sinful” behavior, thoughts, etc. which we speak of in euphemism, does have a non-culpable, psychological and medical component which should be dealt with as such. This should impact the way we pastor, counsel, and evaluate others in the Church. Some do struggle against heavier burdens. Telling someone to repent themselves out of a behavior linked to a chemical imbalance or childhood trauma is a recipe for pastoral malpractice. These things do need treatment, healing (human and divine).

But these euphemisms have their limits and so cannot replace or dominate our vocabulary for sin. This is so for at least a couple of reasons.

First, in Scripture, sin is defined theologically. Sin is sin because it is committed ultimately against and before God. This is the point of David’s bit of hyperbole when he says, “against you and you only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Taken flatly, it’s false. He stole Uriah’s wife and then had him killed; he sinned against him. Jesus himself speaks of us sinning against our neighbors (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:4). All the same, David has cut to heart of it: primarily and ultimately, sin involves acts and a mindset hostile to God’s loving rule and his good law (1 John 3:4).

Recent euphemisms don’t quite capture this active sense of opposition, pride, hostility, and violation against God, his creatures, and his world.

Which leads to the second problem: most of these euphemisms (if used exclusively) downplay the agency and responsibility of persons. In general, they tend to move everything into the categories of the therapeutic and the medical, instead of the moral. But our condition cannot be reduced to these categories.

No, Scripture gives us a wide variety of terms like “transgression”, “iniquity”, “rebellion”, “idolatry”, “wickedness”, and, yes, “sin” straight-out. And there is something necessary about using these words to describe the myriad forms of human viciousness: hate, racism, adultery, slander, gossip, theft, cheating the poor, fornication, dishonoring our parents, lack of charity, insult, and so on.

We have collectively, and individually, ruined ourselves in setting ourselves in opposition to God’s goodness in these ways. In Adam, the moral break and rebellion preceded any other kind of brokenness which followed as a result.

What’s more, we actively make choices to set ourselves first before God and our neighbors daily. We choose what is easy or profitable or beneficial over what is right. And we rationalize it with just about any sort of defense that’s at hand–including the therapeutic.

And so we need to be able to name that and own it.

Indeed, there’s something healthy and morally empowering in hearing your sin named as sin. If you exclusively think of yourself in the realm of the therapeutic and medical, it’s hard for many to imagine repentance. You can’t repent of “brokenness” in the same way as you can of wickedness.

It can be bracing to hear someone say, “That is sin. You must turn to Christ and repent of it.” Of course, even to repent, we need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, but the way we relate to these things changes. I am an active, moral agent, making real choices one way or the other. And that matters.

This is not even close to a comprehensive statement on these things. If I had time and space, it would be good to discuss differences between acts and conditions, corruption, etc. It would be also fruitful to explore the dimension of sin that Scripture names as bondage and enslavement. God has an enemy who tempts, enslaves, and binds people to sin. And I think that forms something of a third category between the therapeutic and the moral dimensions.

At the end of the day, though, I’m simply saying we should not be reductionists about sin. It is a multi-faceted reality and we should speak as diversely and complexly about it as Scripture does.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Cornelius Plantinga’s discussion in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a good place to start thinking about this stuff.

A Note on Biography, Theology, and Ad Hominem

Nietzsche187a

Nietzsche was the master of the ad hominem.

I’ve been thinking about arguments again, but this time with respect to the turn to first-person narratives in the broader internet landscape, and within the online, Evangelical world. One of the persistent features of these sorts of essays is the move from “personal story to general point.” You tell your harrowing, or odd, or funny story, etc. and then move to what you learned from it (and maybe what we can all learn). In church circles, we often make theological points this way, especially if we can tie it to a major change of mind on some issue.

It’s an engaging way of making a point and so it has come to dominate much Internet publication culture. But more than any other style, it also tends to tie people to their positions in a way other modes of writing (a persuasive essay, inductive argument, etc.) do not. That’s true in the broader cultural phenomenon as well as theological writing in Church circles.

Now, I don’t have space for a full-on analysis of this style, its benefits, its grounding, or how much it actually connects to Biblical narrative, or even Evangelical testimonials. I just want to make two or three points about what it seems to do to our ability to talk to one another in a dispute.

Reactive Reading. If you have been trained, either by reading or writing this way, to sort of insert yourself into the argument all the time, this tends to make people reactive readers. In other words, you may be prone towards assuming you’re the intended audience, or target of a piece, when you couldn’t be further from the author’s mind.

This matters because it may cause you to misread the piece. For instance, you may fill in bits of the argument from your own (assumed) analogous experience, and thereby change the shape of what an author is saying. I have seen this happen and have had it happen to my own arguments more than once. (This is actually why I am prone to excessive caveating.)

In any case, this bogs down communication and understanding horribly.

Argument confused with Ad HominemConnected to this is the tendency to confuse arguments with ad hominems. If your story is your argument for X (Calvinism, Gay Marriage, a Trump Vote, vaccines, etc.), then if I argue against X, it’s very easy for you to feel hurt, be offended by the “tone”, or to take it as a personal assault or insult to you. And this could be the case even if I very studiously avoid commenting on your story at all.

And this hinders discussion in at least two ways: it injects an extra note of personal hostility where none may exist. Second. it confuses the nature of the argument immediately. So instead of dealing with the various premises put forward by one person, we’re now focused on managing the feelings of the second, and none of the issues are actually clarified.

Argument replaced with Ad Hominem as Conversation-stopper. Finally, this tendency encourages us to actually replace arguments with ad hominems. The more theology is reduced to biography without remainder, the quicker we are to reach for ad hominems in the middle of an argument. “Well, you would say that since you’re X…”

There is, of course, a point to noting nobody is an identity-less thinker. I’m a married, 30-year-old, bilingual, tri-cultural, Arab, Hispanic male who lives in the States, grew up in SoCal, and is in grad school for theology. There’s a story there and it impacts my perspective on the world and even my theological development and positions. Perspective does matter. Hear me say that.

But simply noting these facts about perspective logically cannot (and morally should not) stop an argument dead in its tracks. Especially when it is used to leap-frog over arguments entirely.

This move has the effect, first, of reducing persons to key identity-markers and not recognizing them as individual, Image-bearers in any conversation. Second, it is unsatisfying and likely to backfire in the long-run, because the quicker you shut down the conversation this way, the more likely it is that you have left the argument (and the arguer) unanswered. And so they (and onlookers) may be cowed into silence for now, but the issue is still there festering.

Or, again, it encourages us to rely heavily on the argument from inconsistency or hypocrisy, “How can you say Y, when you have done X?” Now, there may indeed be an inconsistency in a person’s position or life, but that doesn’t immediately invalidate an argument. It just means the person is a hypocrite, or a sinner (ie. human), or maybe you’re just being massively unfair.

In any case, this happens all the time in online debates, and I suspect it is connected to this tendency to first-personalize every issue. Arguments about issues are not arguments about truth, but power-grabs and defensive moves. We tend towards the “what this really means” defense.

(And let me note from the examples I mentioned above, this tendency isn’t just about theological conversations in Evangelicalism. It is everywhere. Watch how quickly someone on the political Right spits out the word “elitist” at someone when the argument isn’t going their way.)

Golden Rule Reading (and Arguing)

I have passed over too many details and nuances too quickly. Still, I think these brief considerations ought to give us pause. I’m not saying we ought to ban first-person narratives, nor think about the relation to biography to theology, nor am I even rejecting the appropriateness of an ad hominem from time to time. I am simply encouraging us to take notice of these tendencies and be careful of them.

Do I tend to insert myself into articles or arguments too quickly? Am I prone towards narcissistic reading?

Do I tend to feel insulted by arguments all the time? Are people constantly needing to explain their meaning to me all the time to clarify their lack of ill-intent?

Do I tend to reach for biographical or ad hominem arguments quickly? Do I tend to do so before I actually engage the argument under consideration?

Again, it comes down to an application of the Golden Rule in our reading and our arguing: Read as you’d like to be read.

Soli Deo Gloria