A Protestant Note Or Two on “Silence” a Year Out

silenceI know I’m late to the game, but I finally watched Scorcese’s film adaptation of  Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” this last weekend. My wife and I took it in two parts, since I don’t do well with martyrdom stories. (I don’t think I am a crier, but I confess, I weep easily at these accounts.) As everyone said, it was a well-done film; moving, beautifully shot, and offering much rich material for reflection.

I am not sure it’s helpful for me to rehash much of the commentary–certainly not as a film critic. For what it’s worth, I found Alissa Wilkinson’s review a helpful one for situating the work historically, both in relation to Endō’s novel and Scorcese’s oeuvre. She has a sensitive, critical eye. Also, Matt Anderson and Alastair Roberts had our friend Brett McCracken on an episode of Mere Fidelity to chat about it, and all three had thought-provoking input.

Beyond that, I just wanted to add a couple of quick Protestant thoughts that occurred to me while watching.

Apostasy, the Immanent Frame, and Resurrection

On what might be the central question of the film–the righteousness of Rodrigues’ apostasy in order to “save” the Japanese Christians, I found Jake Meador’s comments most helpful. As he points out, Biblical faith is the faith of the martyrs. I do think the Church is to offer grace for the weak, for the apostate–I am not a Donatist. And let’s be honest, in a similar position, I don’t know that I would have that strength.

But the faith Scripture holds out for us (that of Daniel, of Christ, of the Martyred Apostles, of Polycarp) encourages us to receive our crown for confession, not denying the Father (or the Son) before men (Matt. 10:33). Indeed, in the desert, Christ will not kneel to the Accuser for all the kingdoms of the world–imagine all the good he could do!–if that means denying God.

On a Protestant note, Calvin and many of the Reformers did not think much of the Nicodemites, those who concealed their Protestant convictions in Roman Catholic France and elsewhere, celebrating the Mass and so forth. They thought the choice was either running into exile, or public confession unto mission and the risk of martyrdom. Though, again, they believed God was merciful to those in difficult trials.

I’ll add here that Rodrigues’ assumption in trampling (and the argument of the Inquisitors to this effect) was that to save the Japanese Christians from temporal suffering was to save them from the suffering that truly mattered. Indeed, this is part of what marks the novel and the film as particularly modern, despite being set in the 17th century.  Stuck in the Immanent Frame” (Taylor), where this-worldly good is the only kind that feels truly real, the weight of God’s “silence” in the face of the death of his saints is particularly overwhelming. (One wonders how much the “New View of Heaven” Todd Billings speaks of, plays into this.)

All the same, that is not at all the presumption of Christ who told his disciples, “do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (Luke 12:4). He even states, paradoxically:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:16-19)

Of course, this only makes sense in light of the resurrection. The same goes for many of his other promises of repayment and restoration of everything sacrificed for Christ in the coming kingdom (Matt. 10:30). Kingdom ethics has always been a death-and-resurrection ethic. Which makes sense, given that the death and resurrection of Christ are at the the heart of the Christian faith.

For Rodrigues to trample, then, was to (understandably) fail his people, by robbing them of the comfort and encouragement of the gospel of resurrection they needed in such a trying time. And this was so especially as their Roman Catholic priest.

Which brings me to another point that nagged me throughout as a specifically Protestant viewer.

Priesthood of All Believers

As I watched I was overwhelmed by the heartbreaking need of the Japanese villagers. Oppressed politically, economically, and spiritually, the villagers needed the priests. Not only as pastors offering instruction, comfort, and counsel. According to their theology of priestly mediation, they needed them to be the Church. As Rodrigues says at one point, “If Garrpe [his fellow priest] and I die, then the Church in Japan dies.” Of course, everything Evangelical in me wanted to yell, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am present!” But he was right.

There is no priesthood of all believers there. Without ordained priests, these saints could not confess their sins to one another, nor declare to one another the definitive forgiveness of Christ in the gospel. And while there were measures for emergency baptisms, none could receive what they took to be the life-giving sustenance of the transubstantiated Body of Christ in the Eucharist because there was no priest to perform the Mass. Incidentally, this is the other dimension to Rodrigues’ failure: by apostatizing, according to his own theology he himself collaborates in killing the church in Japan.

Of course, one can only admire the Roman Catholic missionaries who did go, since the reality at the time-setting of the film was that Protestants were still mostly focused on the mission to Christendom and consolidating the gains of the Reformation.

And so I watched, in awe of the faith of these heroic villagers who were oppressed by a the State for their faith, dying with the name of “Deus” on their lips, singing hymns. And yet it was beyond tragic to see the way even the form of the faith given them had denied them and their families some of the comforts of the gospel which are their right as adopted children of God.

Soli Deo Gloria



Annihilation, Ubiquitous Weirdness, and Revealing the Alien


This past Sunday night, my wife and I went to see the film Annihiliation. We had not read the book, and I’m usually not one for horror films, even sci-fi ones, but the previews looked intriguing. It was a provocative, visually-overwhelming, and somewhat disturbing film. (Warning: it had some surprising moments of violence.)

I’ve continued to come back to the film in my mind over the last week or so, and I wanted to briefly write up some disconnected thoughts on the matter–ones that may only make sense if you’ve seen the movie. This isn’t film criticism, a review, or an attempt at interpretation. I’m not competent to those tasks. It is rather more a couple of rough, theological reflections on the alien and the Other provoked by my experience of watching the film.

The Ubiquitous Weirdness of the Bible

The first thing struck me and drew me to the film, even in the previews, was the visual weirdness of The Shimmer–the alien phenomena at the center of the plot: the translucent glow, the bizarre landscapes of humanoid flower constructions, the astonishing and ghastly hybridized animal life, and architecturally-improbable glass towers.

Part of the beauty and the freaky peculiarity of it was the way it took the familiar and made it alien. I mean, deer with branches covered in flowers for antlers is arresting and lovely. But then, when I stop and think about it, the fact that deer have antlers sticking out of their head at all is just odd. Witnessing the familiar transformed reminded me of how odd the familiar actually is.

Now, providentially enough, I just happened to be working my way through Vern Poythress’s new book Theophany. Reading through text after text in the OT I kept thinking, “Man, the Bible is a ubiquitously weird book.”

Bushes that burn yet are not consumed. Seas that split open like the ground in an earthquake. Rivers turn to blood. Men that glow in the dark. Golden boxes that are deadly to the touch. Mountains covered in smoke, lightning, and fire. Angels appearing in burning furnaces. Demons and giants. Speaking Tornadoes.

If you’ve grown up with this book you’re whole life–especially reading these stories in little blank print on plain white tissue paper–it is so easy to breeze by the awesome terror, the excessive grandeur of these narratives. There is something alien about the world of the Bible. And yet here is the truly exhilarating claim: that is our world.

Reading the Bible is supposed to have something of the same effect the film had on me: it is supposed to shock open your eyes to this alien world we inhabit.

Alien Revelation

Even more striking to me was the issue of the otherness of the “alien” reality. Think of Star Trek or Star Wars and you see most of the alien and sci-fi universes depicted on screen are either anthropomorphic figures or bestialized variants on forms we already know. Not only that, their motivations, their loves, their hates, and so forth, exist within the range of the humanly-graspable. Perhaps they are more powerful, or ugly, or beautiful, but they are recognizable, nevertheless.

This was not the case with Annihilation, (nor the Heptapods of Arrival, I would argue). Here we encounter the truly unnerving and inscrutable Other. Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Aliens here are numinous, filling you with a sense of creaturely-dread in the face of a power that you have no grid for understanding. And why should we? They are aliens.

Of course, my own thoughts turn heavenward at that point. Something of this inscrutability, alien Otherness, and dread is what we see in Scripture. Who can understand the mind of the Lord? Who can recount his ways? How do you get a handle on the understanding and motivations of a being whose intellect and power are sufficient to bring about the cosmos (billions of galaxies and stars large) into existence?

Which is why an encounter with the Lord in Scripture usually produces fear and trembling. Israel before Mt. Sinai. Isaiah undone before the majesty of God’s throne in the Temple. Ezekiel’s acid trip before chariot with the wheels within wheels. Job before the Whirlwind. Annihilation reminded me of some of the tremor one should probably feel in the bones when reading such texts.

But here the difference asserts itself. At Sinai, God gives the Law. In the Temple, the Holy One commissions Isaiah. The figure on the throne-chariot addresses Ezekiel, the Son of Man. The Whirlwind speaks.

In Scripture, the weird, the terrifying, the alien experiences of God are not just assertions of power, of alien force, of the need for terror, but fundamentally acts of communication and self-revelation, and therefore grace. God makes himself known in the fire to Moses in order to proclaim the day of salvation for Israel. Isaiah and Ezekiel are sent to warn against sin and preach hope. There are no answers in the Whirlwind, but there is assurance.

And of course, finally, there is the incarnation of the Son, the Word God speaks. The God beyond us comes near, the Ultimate Other becomes one of us. In him, flesh of our flesh, we see the heart of God made truly known.*

As always, there is more to explore, especially at the rich anthropological themes, but since this is just a quick couple of reflections, I’ll just leave things there for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Of course, it would be interesting to delve into what impact the extra-Calvinisticum has on this dynamic of revelation. The Son of God comes truly in the flesh, but he nevertheless exists beyond it. God reveals himself truly, but the finite cannot fully contain the infinite. There is always a beyondness to God.

The Proper Use and Abuse of Hypocrisy-Checking

hypocrisy juking

Everybody’s an inconsistent hypocrite. At least, that’s the lesson the internet is teaching us in 2018. (In case we hadn’t learned it from Scripture already.) I’m referring, of course, to the ever-present (and much commented-on) practice of hypocrisy-juking and various forms of whataboutism.

I was struck by it once again yesterday, when a number of conservative friends began to (correctly) point out the relative silence of progressive Evangelical bloggers and commentators on the failure of Congress to pass the ban on elective abortions at 20-weeks, when the child in question can obviously feel pain.

Now, this shouldn’t have been hard to pass nor to condemn and lament. It’s not a radically pro-life position on the matter. Most progressive European countries don’t allow the practice to be elective that late; the US is in the company of only seven other countries with abortion regimes as permissive as ours, including China and North Korea.

What was striking to my conservative friends was that you’ll frequently find progressive Evangelicals loudly (and perhaps rightly) arguing for various other policy measures (single-payer, immigration reform) along the lines of being holistically, or truly Pro-Life, and then decrying Congressional failure to act on these policies, and Evangelicals for failing to support them.

And yet, when it comes to a policy that is directly and indisputably Pro-Life? Crickets. One wonders why.

Maybe everybody was just focused on other issues that day? Or perhaps, given the increasingly tribal way we engage in moral outrage, there was a fear on the part of newly Progressive Evangelicals at offending or alienating their new-found allies on other issues of great moral concern? Is it a desire to avoid being perceived as one of those Pro-Lifers? The kind they left behind with the rest of their small-minded bigotry? Most cynically, perhaps they don’t care about pro-life anymore at all and simply use the language to engage Evangelicals on their issues of real concern.

Maybe Richard Beck has a point in warning his own tribe of progressives about just turning into Democrats the way conservative Evangelicals became knee-jerk Republicans.

Now, if you’re a conservative Evangelical of a certain sort, these last few paragraphs may have given you a nice, warm sense of satisfaction inside. I could suggest many reasons for it, but one might be the sheer relief of seeing someone other than the conservative Evangelical leaders who have been beclowning themselves in a Carnivalesque fashion through series of attempts to justify President Trump’s various gaffes and sins being called out. The list of cynical justifications, hypocritical back-tracking, willful blindness, and cowardly silences is truly cringe-inducing. Volumes could be written on the failure of moral voices in 2017 alone.

The point is, we could play the, “If Obama had said…” and “If Bush had done…” and “If Clinton had been…” game until the cows come home and we could all be right about someone. And more importantly, someone could probably be right about us.

Which brings me back around again to the broader question of hypocrisy-juking. Why do we engage in it? Also, are there proper uses for it? If so, how? And how ought we respond to it?

On the first question, I can think of a few reasons.

First, it’s just satisfying to take your ideological enemies down a peg. This is especially the case if you see them as prone to a specific kind of preening self-righteousness and grandstanding, with little self-reflection or humility. Catching out their inconsistencies can assure you of their basic wrongness and your basic rightness.

Connected to this, it can be a way of assuaging your own conscience for your own inconsistencies. You may not state it this way, but the basic tu quoque can be a rationalization: everybody does it. Look! They do it too.

More nobly, you may actually be interested in issuing a moral warning. Some people are actually interested in dialoguing and arguing with a principled opposition. You may see someone you disagree with and respect generally, falling into the sort of self-justifying hypocrisy, or an inconsistency born of moral cowardice and a need to fit the tribe, and feel the need to reach out and warn them to avoid it. Now, this can turn into concern-trolling fairly quickly, but I have seen it done (and had it done to me) in good faith.

Finally, and this is an extension of the last point, you may actually be interested in persuasion. Instead of just pushing people down a peg, you may desire to convince them to change their mind on a particular issue given their historic stance, or their stated principles elsewhere. In which case, something like hypocrisy-juking may be in order. (One thinks of Jesus grilling the Pharisees for tithing mint and dill for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, despite adhering rigidly to the minor ones.)

I think we can already see that in these last two reasons, we some place for it. But in the case of persuasion and warning, the act of pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistency ceases to be an act of “juking.” The moral intention, the heart behind it, transforms the act into one of righteous and (in the end) loving exposure and correction.

The last two questions, I think, are caught up with one another and are answered in Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5)

Only the person who is committed to removing the plank from their own eye, to rigorously pursuing intellectual and moral integrity in their own life and thought, will be suited to attempt to remove the speck from their brother’s. This, both because they are now seeing more clearly, and also because one of the things they see more clearly is their own sin, corruption, and guilt in the matter. This leads to a humble heart not set on vengeance or the vindication of their own name and tribe.

But, of course, in order to be this person, you must be prepared to accept your brother’s help in removing the plank from your eye as well!

All of which is to say, when tempted to point out the hypocrisy in an opponent’s position, check yourself in the matter first. You may quickly find the self-righteousness drained from your stinging remarks. Which, ironically enough, means you’ll be more likely to frame them in a way that people on the other side will hear them.

On the flipside, the wise accept rebuke and become wiser still (Prov. 9:8-9). And this, even from harsh or bad-faith critics. It may be that you know someone is critiquing you just to take you down a peg or to protect themselves. Before you write them off as a fool, ask yourself, “But do they have a point?” If so, correct it. If they have a point, they have a point.

Correct it because it is right, but also, the next time someone tries to critique you along those lines, you can actually be confident it is wrong. Indeed, you may even be able to share the way you have changed and that may be a model for your interlocutor.

Growth in grace here is difficult, and I don’t think for a moment I have this down. Still, given the toxicity of the cultural moment, one of the greatest ways to witness to the forgiveness, mercy, and transforming power of the gospel in our lives is to manifest it in our humble struggle for integrity.

Because the reality is, our greatest resource in any of this is in letting go of our sinful attempts at self-justification because we know by the witness of the Holy Spirit we have justified in Christ.

Maybe take some time now to log off and meditate on that.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Smith’s Proposal for “Orthodoxy”-language and SSM

nicea-2.jpgYesterday James K.A. Smith had a post on whether to talk about SSM as an issue of “orthodoxy” or not and, of course, it provoked some discussion online. Alastair Roberts has already weighed in with a rejoinder worth considering on what it means to be “creedally-orthodox.”

I have a few thoughts on it that I figured I’d lay out in no particular order. First, though, I’ll just state at the outset, I benefit greatly from Smith’s work, respect him as a scholar and a Christian. Nor am I at all worried this is an attempt at moral revision or something like that. And I hope anyone reading this (including Smith himself) will read this post in that light.

To begin, I’ll just say I find myself quite sympathetic to Smith’s concerns. A few years ago I wondered aloud whether we needed another term to flag what sort of error SSM-affirming is. I’m certainly in no rush to declare new heresies or label anybody as a heretic. I have enough friends who I am convinced are trying to love Jesus but honestly differ from me on this issue that it would be painful and costly to do so.

That said, I’m not sure Smith has been fair to or grasped the point of those who have been using the term this way.

For some who insist this is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy, the point is same-sex marriage is and assumes a denial of a broader theological vision of creation and the meaning of the body assumed by the whole of the Christian church and the creedal tradition itself. It’s a functional denial of doctrines like creation and the Christology implied by the resurrection of the body. For them it is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy by “good and necessary consequence”, so to speak.

Second, some would object to this sort of trimming of the concept since it tends to imply an un-Biblical bifurcation between dogmatics and ethics. Paul’s admonition against fornication and sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6 is grounded in the creation of the body, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection (“the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body”). It is an explicitly Christological sexual ethic. I don’t think Smith intends this bifurcation, but it seems to be a danger inherent in his thin creedalism.

Beyond that, it does not seem those whom Smith suggests are “stretching” the markers of orthodoxy are “oddly selective.” They are reactive to particular, current movements to normalize behaviors in the Church which have been scandalous to it for 2000 years. Now, there may be a selectivity about it worth critiquing, given other scandals we may think are occurring without much notice. But there’s nothing unintelligible or suspicious about the reaction this issue, since on no other issue does there appear to be such a full-court press towards revision and acceptance in both society and the Church.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem their focus on sexual immorality is out of place with the focus it was given in the life of the early church. Consider the first church council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Whatever you make of the proscription against consuming blood, one of the first rules the Apostles laid down for the Gentiles to be seen as Christians in good standing is to abstain from “sexual immorality”, a term which in 1st Century Judaism was largely informed by Leviticus 18 including its proscription of same-sex intercourse. This actually tells you how central sexual ethics was to the practice and understanding of the gospel it was in the 1st century.

If you jump into the writings of the Fathers, this focus is similarly not lacking. In fact, the Councils themselves had various canons attached to them which included much moral and ethical instruction beyond the specific definitions and creeds we usually associated with them.

Beyond that, the danger most are reacting to is that if we don’t label something a matter of orthodoxy, it tends to become minimized to an adiaphora or an “agree to disagree” issue. Smith is not trying to do that. He says this linguistic change doesn’t signal it’s a matter of indifference. And yet there is a danger of doing just that when he asks this question:

“Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?  So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o “orthodox Christianity?”

There are couple of problems with this question. One is running the issue of SSM right in there with women in ordained office and violence. The exegetical and traditional witness on women’s ordination is in such a different place than that of SSM. Even starker (at least in the tradition) is the difference on the matter of nonviolence and Just War. By putting them in the same category it falsifies the difference between these three issues and (unintentionally) moves the boundary towards a similarity in treatment.

Second, though, I think we fail to consider that the battles over orthodoxy in the first few centuries were all among people who had way more agreement between themselves on the broad Christian story than with the surrounding Pagan culture. For instance, the sixth council which ruled on the issue of Monothelitism was making some fairly fine distinctions about the nature of Christ’s two natures. All the participants could plausibly say, “Hey look, we’re all Nicene and Chalcedonian Christians here.” And certainly someone from the outside would look at it as distinctions with barely a difference.

At this point, then, you have a dispute between Christians who affirmed the supernatural tenets of the gospel, the resurrection of Christ, the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father and so forth, grace, and yet this very fine distinction about Christ’s two wills was deemed a marker of orthodoxy, because if it wasn’t affirmed, it functionally and materially undermined all the rest. I think we need to consider that reality when we think about Smith’s questions and our unwillingness to use strong language about the issue.

As I said, though, I don’t mind using a different term. So long as we all agree “orthodox” only means, “signs off on the right propositions on some foundational issues settled by church creeds and definitions.”  But what needs to be made absolutely clear at that point is that “orthodoxy” is now an extremely limited concept for ecclesial boundaries and distinguishing normative Christian belief and practice. It is necessary but nowhere close to sufficient for flagging the totality of their beliefs within the ecclesially-acceptable spectrum of normative Christianity.

Let me put it this way, on this thin view, it’s a coherent and acceptable statement to say, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes adultery can be Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes bearing false witness is Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes coveting is Christian behavior.” None of those statements is incoherent if “orthodox” just means “formally aligns on key Nicene and Chalcedonian propositions.” And yet it’s obvious in each case, somewhere Joe is severely out of line with the gospel. My point is that it’s clear whatever extra term we have, it needs to have some real, normative force.

Otherwise, while we may say this isn’t an issue of indifference, the more we repeat sentences like, “Well, this is an argument between ‘orthodox’ believers”, the more the line is moved and we all begin to hear, “Well, this is a discussion between believers who are all basically in line with the gospel.” Smith’s thin definition of orthodoxy will still carry the thicker connotation it has typically had with all of its boundary-defining force.

Now, with that said, what different word will do? I suppose traditional could work, for the reasons Smith mentions. But it seems to lack something of the moral and ecclesial force it needs to in order to flag the importance an uniformity of opinion on the issue in church practice and history. What’s more, the implied binary term “un-traditional” still manages to carry with it a bit of sex-appeal and cachet in our culture that is unhelpful.

I’m tempted to suggest a difference between a “catholic” sexual ethic v. an un-catholic or revisionist one? It’s close enough in sense to traditional, but gives clearer testimony that this view is one of the only ones that could plausibly fit the Vincentinian Canon (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”) in both time and space. In which case, someone could be “orthodox” creedally, while “revisionist” as to ethics, and we could have a better sense of the situation. There was a reason no less than Wolfhart Pannenberg thought churches who revised on the issue were formally schismatic.

Of course, I am not married to that language. Perhaps “apostolic” could do. Or maybe I’m being too finicky and “traditional” is enough. The point, though, is that whichever term we choose, it needs to be an unambiguously clear way of signalling this is a very, very serious deviance from historic Christian belief. And it’s one that if gotten wrong, has serious moral and spiritual repercussions.

How we have the conversation does matter. We do need to conduct it with the love, grace, charity, and courage of those whose lives are marked by the confession of God’s forgiveness. And yet, we need to be clear on exactly what sort of conversation we’re having.

Soli Deo Gloria

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