Quick Thoughts on Comparison, and the Angst of Growing Up Slowly

kierkegaard2_360x450

Kierkegaard is not mentioned at all, but “angst”, so obvious photo, right?

I have always struggled with impatience and no slight bit of angst connected with it.

After getting the call to ministry in college, there were a couple of popular pastors I used to podcast religiously each week. Alongside my own pastor, these guys had kind of nailed the dream for me.

They had vibrant churches that ministered the gospel to non-believers. They were preaching to thousands. They were writing popular books. On the whole, if I could have picked my path, they seemed to have carved it out pretty well.

The fact that I was still in college, hadn’t been to seminary, and had virtually no experience or disciplined talent for preaching or teaching, made that path to the promised land seem endless. Not preaching now made it like I would never preach then. Even worse, knowing I couldn’t preach now, even if given the chance, added insult to injury.

Ten years later, for different reasons and in different ways, both have tanked as ministers and teachers. Which is to say the models or paths we choose for ourselves at twenty may not be the ones we actually need.

One of the most difficult lessons we learn growing up is that we can’t actually be our heroes. Indeed, often our heroes couldn’t really be our heroes either.

I was reminded of all this recently as I sat reading a book by one of my favorite authors—another “hero” who (thankfully) has traveled a very different trajectory. As I sat there reading, delighting in the work, I was filled once again with that same impatience, that frustration and angst that comes with knowing I simply could not pull this off right now.

Not in my finest moments could I write with the wisdom, the maturity, style, and assurance of someone twice my age. I know this. And if I stop and think for more than twenty seconds, I understand that my impatience is foolish.

The problem is that I need the patience of a sixty-year-old to cope with being thirty.

Of course, it is at times like these that I’m grateful I have an advisor who happens to possess that sort of patience and wisdom. We were chatting about all of this and he gently called my attention to a number of spiritual realities I wasn’t properly attending: the slowness of spiritual growth, God’s way of wisdom, grace—the big stuff.

I suppose part of what makes all of this even worse, though, is the constant comparison game that we’re all tempted to play. In grad school it looks like sizing up your classmates’ CVs (articles published, lectures given, etc). In blogging, it’s publications, book deals, and so forth.

It’s damnably easy to begin looking around, finding all the accomplished people you know, heaping them up on one side of the scale, and then finding yourself wanting in comparison. Just as others are likely doing when they look at you.

One chap pointed out online that the one-talent servant isn’t supposed to be producing what the five-talent servant should.

In a different context, Paul tells the church in Rome that believers shouldn’t be too concerned about thinking too highly of themselves. God has given all different gifts and so they should learn to use them as best they can for the whole body (Romans 12:6).

At the end of John 21, Jesus tells Peter how he’s going to die. Peter looks over at John and says, “But what about that guy?”

Jesus responds, “If I will that he stays until I return, what is it to you? You follow me!”

Even though you might be the five-talent servant compared to the next person over, I think quite a bit of the painful part of growing up is learning to be a faithful, one-talent servant who patiently follows Jesus at the particular pace he has appointed.

It is not my pace, but, then again, I have learned enough over the years to know that is not a bad thing.

In the end, the Teacher has seen the heart of it: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccl 3:11)

Soli Deo Gloria

Learning to Walk Down the Aisle With Christ

wedding rehearsal.pngThis last week, I had a piece published in The Local Church (a recent sub-branch of Christianity Today). It’s about the Lord’s Supper. I have to say that I loved writing this piece. Kind of a different one for me. This is one of my favorite chunks:

Learning to Walk Down the Aisle

The night before my wedding, I learned that my natural gait isn’t “wedding processional speed.” Over the years, I have developed my own ways of walking. Typically I set a brisk pace and dodge and weave in and out of crowds.

This, apparently, is not the way you walk up the aisle with your bride.

The same holds true about the way you walk forward to receive the bread and the wine. There is a rhythm to feasting with the body. You have to remember, week by week, that you can only walk as quickly as the server is handing out the elements—or as slow your sister in front of you, whether young or old, can make it.

Receiving the bread and wine reminds you that if you’re always used to walking at your own pace, insisting on getting there in your own time and in your own way, you’ll ruin the rhythms of grace.

The Lord’s Supper trains us to step in such a way as to be receptive to the life he desires to give us. It’s one of the ways that God teaches us to “not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). God’s gifts come to us as he deems it fit to give them—at his own pace, in his own time. We learn this by participating in the Lord’s Supper.

You can read the rest of the article as well as a number of other excellent pieces on the theme of “Feast” by clicking here.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mayors and Prophets: Both Servants of the Lord in Tricky Times

kingsAhab’s reign in the Kingdom of Israel was one of the most godless in her whole history. And that’s saying something. Queen Jezebel has instituted worship of the Baals and ordered all the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered. The godlessness is so rampant that Yahweh has the prophet Elijah proclaim a drought and a famine in the land of Israel, in response. If Jezebel and Ahab want the word of Yahweh to dry up in the land, they will suffer the consequences.

What does it look like to serve Yahweh faithfully in this context? In the first half of 1 Kings chapter 18, right before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, we’re given a portrait of two quite distinct servants of Yahweh: Obadiah, the household manager in Ahab’s court, and Elijah, the iconoclastic prophet.

In his absurdly insightful theological commentary, Peter Leithart sheds some light on the distinct roles they play in the Yahweh’s retinue:

As “mayor of the palace” Obadiah holds a high position in Israel, with responsibility for Ahab’s palace, estates, and livestock. Both Elijah and Obadiah (whose name means “servant of Yah”) are faithful servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but radically differ in their position and mode of service. Elijah confronts Ahab from outside the court, while Obadiah works for the preservation of the prophets–and hence the preservation of the word of Yahweh–from within Ahab’s court, subverting the official policies of the court even while acting as chief steward. Not every faithful believer is called to be an Elijah. Many are called to the tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context, to the business of serving Elijah and Yahweh as “master” (18:7) and serving Ahab as “master” (18:8) Obadiah’s position is not merely tricky; it is dangerous. A false shepherd, Ahab tolerates Jezebel “cutting off”…prophets (18:4), but is reluctant to “cut off” any of his cattle…(18:5). Jezebel the Baal worshiper is willing to tolerate golden calves and other forms of idolatrous worship, but she cannot tolerate the intolerance of Yahweh worshipers.

1 & 2 Kings, 133-134

Elijah is obviously the hero of the whole narrative and one of the central figures in both 1 & Kings. Elijah has the word of Yahweh come to him personally. Elijah courageously calls out Ahab, the king of Israel in the name of the true God. Elijah faces off with the prophets on the mountain, calling down fire from Yahweh in the heavens. Elijah is a model of prophetic faithfulness, the willingness to stand outside the compromising systems of empire and power, depending solely on the Yahweh’s protection and preservation to carry out his task.

And yet, there stands Obadiah–the skittish, possibly compromised, bureaucrat. Because, think about it–wouldn’t many of us on the purist end (a rather exaggerated Neo-Anabaptist, possibly), be tempted to consider him compromised? Isn’t he working for a godless king in a regime that seems actively hostile the will of Yahweh? Aren’t followers of Yahweh to remain pure and set apart from evil-doers and the systems of power that they run? To avoid colluding with Empire? Doesn’t running Ahab’s household count?

Well, according to the political theology of 1 & 2 Kings, it’s only because of Obadiah’s willingness to stay within the regime that he was able to successfully resist it and save some of Yahweh’s prophets, ensuring that when Elijah’s showdown happens and the prophets of Baal are overthrown, there’s someone around to preach God’s Word. Obadiah is able to exercise wisdom and rebel from within, only because he stays within.

In times of trial like those facing God’s people in the times of Ahab, the danger is the Elijahs and Obadiahs God has called to serve him might not recognize each other’s distinct calls. Elijah might be tempted to scorn the cowardice and compromise of Obadiah’s wisdom in difficult places. Obadiah, meanwhile, might be tempted to bemoan and begrudge the “trouble” brought on by the rash words and confrontational stance of Elijah, who seems to paint everything in black and white with no shades of grey. And yet that would be a mistake, for God’s wisdom can employ both prophet and bureaucrat to preserve and proclaim his Word, each according to the gifts and privileges that God had given them. In a sense, we need Paul’s theology of the body and the gifts (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). applied outward into the worldly vocations that the citizens of the Kingdom must engage in.

Texts like this are obviously releant in the face of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the “intolerance” or exclusivity of Christian values and truth claims. Don’t worry, I’m not breaking out the “p”-word and claiming that Christians will have to face firing squads soon, or something like that. All the same, let’s not be naive in the other direction. If there are Chicken Littles running around proclaiming the imminent descend of the heavens, there are also ostriches with their heads in the sand. Or worse, those who refuse to see any difficulties ahead because, well, you know, Jezebel “has a point.” Trouble will come and, indeed, has always come for the people of God.

For that reason, we need deep, biblical wisdom like that of the book of 1 & 2 Kings, read with an eye to the horizon. As Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). These things happened back then and there, but since the patterns of the world’s sin repeat in history, these texts are still used by the Spirit of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Jesus Judge the Wrong People? Or is it Still A Bit Silly to Disagree With Him?

disciplesWas Jesus overly judgmental? Did he ever look at someone and condemn them when ought to have welcomed and affirmed them? Did he ever call something evil, which was really good? Did he say that some things were unacceptable in the sight of God that really were acceptable in the sight of God?

To most orthodox Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant), the confession of Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, would rule that sort of thing out. I mean, Scripture clearly says he is without sin in a number of places. Beyond that, it’s part of the logic of the Gospel itself and a key to the salvific efficacy of his representative humanity on our behalf.

I bring this up because of an interesting post by J.R. Daniel Kirk on ‘Disagreeing With Jesus.’ It’s apparently a follow-up to Robert Gagnon’s piece at First Things piece praising Fuller’s decision not to offer Kirk tenure because of some of his views about Christ, as well as his evolving views on same-sex marriage. In it, Gagnon basically says that had Fuller done otherwise, they would have been allowing and opting for a position on sexuality squarely at odds with Jesus’ view on the matter per Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-9.

Kirk’s response is basically to point out that we all disagree with Jesus on a number of issues:

I disagree with Jesus about some of the opinions of Jesus that he stated:

  • Moses wrote the Pentateuch
  • The truly final eschatological judgment would arrive within a generation of his life
  • My divorced and remarried friends are living in adulterous relationships

I disagree with Jesus about some of the opinions he probably had but didn’t state:

  • The world is flat
  • The world is 3,000 or 4,000 years old (in the first century)
  • The earth is at the center of the universe and the sun revolves around it

I agree with Jesus in some areas where many (or most) Christians disagree with us:

  • To understand Jesus best we have to understand his ministry as that of God’s faithful human representative (the son of humanity/the Human One)
  • Jesus didn’t know everything that God knows (like “the day or the hour”)

I also agree with the church about things that Jesus didn’t think or say:

  • Gentiles get to be part of the people of God without becoming Jewish
  • I’m not guilty of sin when I break the Sabbath every single Saturday

The idea, apparently, is that since many obviously disagree with Jesus on all sorts of issues, Gagnon’s argument is just a rhetorical ploy and not a serious, theological argument. Good disciples can disagree with Jesus at certain points without much of a Christological problem.

Now, I don’t really want to comment on the Fuller situation, nor even the same-sex issue. The Christological claims made in this short piece, however, seem very problematic. Since Kirk’s piece was brief, I’ll try to keep this as short as I can.

First, a number of the things Kirk says he disagrees with Jesus about assumes positions that are by no means foregone conclusions in Gospel scholarship. The old thesis about Jesus’ mistaken view of the coming, final day of judgment within a generation is one that is highly debatable. Another is his judgment that Jesus viewed divorce and remarriage as necessarily sinful, especially given the historic witness in Matthew 19:9 of Jesus giving at least one legitimate exception.

Second, that throwaway bit about germs is rather odd. As Adam Nigh pointed out in the comments, that’s just a historically focused version of the general problem of evil: why didn’t God use any number of supernatural or human means to tells us about germs or a half-dozen other medical insights Jesus failed to pass on? Quite frankly, bringing it up like it’s a serious, moral challenge is a bit silly.

Third, the idea of “disagreeing with Jesus” seems to suffer a bit when we get into counterfactual about what thoughts Jesus didn’t think and didn’t say. Kind of seems like we’re padding the list of disagreements for effect.

Fourth, and more importantly, Kirk mixes up a number of different categories of Jesus’ beliefs into a jumble. We’ve got Jesus’ (potential) views on the age of the earth thrown in with Mosaic authorship as well as his views on eschaton. But that’s really a questionable logical and “rhetorical ploy.” It seems plausible to make a distinction between Jesus knowing according to his human nature the age of the earth and a bit of geography, versus the onset of the coming kingdom of God, doesn’t it? Mixing all them up together just muddies the waters.

To sharpen this, let’s come back to the questions I opened with above. There’s nothing inherently sinful about Jesus not knowing certain cosmological questions. I’m fine with admitting a limitation to Christ’s total knowledge of random facts according to his human nature. That’s not sin. That’s just finitude. There’s nothing Christologically-riding admitting Christ was finite according to his human nature. Indeed, that’s Chalcedonian logic.

But what about his allegedly mistaken views about divorce and remarriage? In this case, Jesus is making a significant, moral judgment about the aims and intentions of the Creator regarding the most basic of all relationships. What’s more, given his own Messianic, self-understanding and his explicit statements about the binding authority of his own words as the Son of Man, making a judgment about this kind of thing isn’t a morally insignificant thing. Jesus getting divorce and remarriage wrong–saying it’s immoral when it really isn’t immoral–condemns as sinners those whom God doesn’t condemn as sinners. He morally binds those who shouldn’t be bound–the very sin Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees.

Let’s be clearer. The implication here is that the very Logos of God, sent to reveal the heart of the Father to the world, would be grievously misrepresenting God’s will for the world. That’s actually a lot more serious that Kirk lets on. For my money, I think we ought to be a bit less cavalier about admitting we disagree with Jesus on the aims and intentions of the one he called Father.

It’s a bit difficult to say, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life” with Peter and then add on, “except for on marriage, the eschaton, etc.” Seems like the sort of thing a disciple shouldn’t do.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Do We Stop Weaponizing Our Victims?

The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about the victims for whom they hold us responsible.

-Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (pg. 164)

girardAccording to Rene Girard, our society, more than any before it, is obsessed with “the victims”–especially those of exclusion, violence, and social scapegoating. And he would know. The French literary critic and anthropologist is something of an expert on the idea of the victim. His works on the ideas of mimetic desire, scapegoating, violence, and their role in literature and culture as a whole are groundbreaking and influential (The Scapegoat, Violence and the Sacred, etc). In any case, according to Girard, you can scan the ancient literature down the generations, across societies, and you find nothing like the widespread concern for the victims in the modern and contemporary period.

You can chalk this up to any number of sources: the effect of the Gospel on cultures through history, the spread and transformation during the Enlightenment of the Christian concept of charity into one of universal benevolence (per Charles Taylor), our post-Holocaust sensibilities, or any number of other social movements. What you can’t do is deny its pervasiveness. As Girard notes, even if we’re hypocritical about it, we at least know we’re supposed to be concerned for the victims: whether oppressed social groups, races, sexes, orientations, or classes.

We are keenly aware now of the way that individuals and groups can be marginalized and kept down by the cruel, powerful, or simply dominant, yet apathetic social majority. What’s more, we know we’re supposed to do something about it in word or deed (or, more cynically, at the very least through a token acknowledgment of complicity via Facebook update).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, insofar as it’s connected with and led to great movements of social justice (Civil Rights movements, advances in gender equality, the rights of the unborn, etc), I think it’s a good thing. Whatever the social roots, I think there are deep, biblical justifications for something like our modern concern for the victim.

Christ himself (among many other things) was a victim of violence and oppression at the hands of religious, social, and political powers. He not only atoned for our sins on the Cross but, among his many works, he exposed in concrete form the oppression and violence against the weak at the heart of a world in rebellion to its Loving Redeemer.

Weaponizing the Victim

All that said, as with any religious insight, sin’s pernicious power can twist and pervert it for its own uses. And, as the opening quote suggests, the modern concern for the victim is no different. In a phrase: we’ve learned to weaponize our victims.

Girard elaborates:

We could use our insight discreetly with our neighbors, not humiliating those we catch in the very act of expelling a scapegoat. But more frequently we turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts, but raisng them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense. Instead of criticizing ourselves, we use our knowledge in bad faith, turning it against others. Indeed, we practice a hunt for scapegoats to a second degree, a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society’s obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty.  (pg. 158)

I suppose I could just remind you of your Twitter or your Facebook feed on Tuesday and you’ll see where he’s going. Think of the vitriolic discussions and finger-pointing around abortion, #BlackLivesMatter, the Syrian Crisis, bullying against LGBT kids, religious liberty infringements, and any number of other important instances of victimization and the importance of Girard’s comments should become apparent. Still, I think it’s worth commenting on in this passage and a number of points to add beyond it.

Secret Substitutions and Weighing the Victims

First, there is the danger of second-order scapegoating brought on by our awareness of our tendency to scapegoat others. As soon as we identify a victim and their corresponding oppressor, we are liable to turn the tables, engaging in “secret substitutions”, and vindictively turn the initial oppressor into a victim of even worse violence (physical, social, economic) than the original victims suffered. We see an instance of online cruelty and become a Twitter mob that doxxes and shames a person out of work and society as a whole, all the while convinced of the rightness of our cause. We’re not oppressors, we’re “allies”, or “voices for the voiceless.”

Then there’s the self-righteous posturing element. Girard points out the way we use the victims to prop up our own self-defense against shame and guilt, our own sense of righteousness. Or maybe it’s not self-justification, but a secularized attempt at penance or atonement that drives us to perform our righteousness before men. We prove and perform our righteousness in a couple of ways, at least.

First, we do so simply by publicly supporting the right sort of victims. Girard speaks earlier about the “weighing of victims” that goes on in society. And we’ve all seen that, right? The comparative element in our online conversations: “How can you care about X, when Y is happening?”

Comparative judgments do have an appropriate place, at times. There are some issues that simply are bigger, more important, or more pressing at a given moment. Of course, the problem is that knowing how to rank them can be a difficult judgment call to make and it’s not always obvious. What’s more, my concern isn’t always a zero-sum game. I can care about more than one victim at a time, or acknowledge the importance of one justice issue while realizing that my voice is needed on this other issue over here.

The devious, second dimension to the comparative judgments, though, is the self-justification that comes with knowing my victim matters more. It’s not just that we want to be righteous by caring about victims, it’s that I care about the right victim, while you care about the wrong one. We want to appear righteous, but we also want to be more righteous than she is.

Which brings us to weaponizing the victim. That opening quote is so devastating because once you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere–especially your own soul. It’s a mirror that exposes to light some of the ugliest impurities in our righteous crusades. Because haven’t you seen that in yourself? No? Well, I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it in your enemies, right?

Haven’t you been agitated by that progressive who is always taking every chance they get to share a devastating story about some victim and immediately tacking the moral on that “this is what Republicans/Evangelicals/Fundamentalists views lead to” or some such statement? Or on the flipside, the way that some legal absurdity just shows the moral bankruptcy of the progressive/Democrat/Post-Evangelical capitulation? Doesn’t this latest tragedy (beautifully) highlight their horrid lack of concern? (A concern which, quite admirably, you have). Don’t these tear-stained faces cry out for the merciless prosecution of our enemies? (Oh, and yes, maybe some aid as well, of course.)

I Am A Danger To Myself

Here’s the thing, I don’t for a minute claim that I escape this, nor, again, that there aren’t situations where that kind of stock-taking and comparison needs to take place. I’ll come clean and say that I have been there in this last month. I mean, with all the Planned Parenthood videos coming out, I’ve sat there appalled at the perceived inconsistency of some of my progressive friends who will trumpet every (in my view) piddling social faux pas, yet remained quiet about it, or whose knee-jerk reaction is to defend the abortion giant. Or be more incensed about Cecile the Lion than tens of thousands of infants butchered. And I honestly think my opposition to abortion and prioritization of it is justified.

But has that been my only concern? Haven’t there been moments where I’ve prided myself on having that sense of proportion? Have there been times when my legitimate concern for these helpless victims hasn’t been edged out my desire to score righteousness points and use that evaluation as part of a broader argument against “deluded” progressives? Am I quieter about other moral issues because they’re not an opportunity to score points against them? Am I more concerned with victims I can hold my neighbors responsible for?

I have to ask myself these questions if I’m going to be honest and avoid running the risk of hunting the hunters, or crassly weaponizing the already-victimized, turning them into objects for my own self-justification. And here’s one of the most pernicious elements of the whole thing: I used myself as an example here, simply to avoid using this post as a third-order exercise in weaponizing the victim against those who weaponize the victims! But I know I’m not the only one here.

Think through the issues, the victims that burden you, and the opponents who anger you. I don’t know what it is for you or who it is for you. Maybe it’s abortion. Maybe it’s racial injustice. Maybe it’s gender or sexuality. Maybe they are friends who’ve gone progressive. Maybe they are Sunday School teachers who stayed Evangelical. Maybe they’re Anabaptists, Calvinists, Roman Catholics, or whoever. And maybe you’re really actually right and they’re really actually wrong. My point here isn’t to say that there aren’t priorities, or a proper place for righteous anger against others on behalf of the victims. Clearly these things actually matter.

My question is this: is your first instinct for the victim or against your enemy? Is it to seek justice or secure righteousness? To bless the hurting or curse the proud? I honestly don’t know sometimes. And that scares me. I remember Paul’s words:

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom. 2:1)

We pass judgment on others in this fashion, only at a danger to ourselves.

Our Hope–the Victim is the Judge

It’s at that moment, though, when I remember my only hope is that one day the secrets of men “will be judged by Jesus Christ” according to the gospel (Rom. 2:16). That Christ Jesus–the One who was the Victim at our hand and on our behalf–is the Judge is my only hope to stand on that final day.

Christ’s gospel is also my only hope to escape this cycle. Only as I continue to recognize my own sin–my violence against God and my neighbor–that put him there is my pride humbled before others. I know that I myself “practice those same things”, in a million different quiet ways. What’s more, it’s only as I continue to trust that his atoning death for sin and resurrecting justification is mine through faith, can I move beyond the self-justifying desire to performatively prove my righteousness against my ideological opponents. My identity isn’t at stake, nor is my need to cover my own guilt and unrighteousness.

Neither of these movements should undercut the motive to seek justice for the victim.

Instead, we are set free to care for the victims as people, for their own sake and the sake of the One whose Image they bear, instead of as pawns in our schemes. Indeed, it opens us up care for more than we had before, since we’re no longer caught up in weighing the victims, making sure we’re working for the “right sort”, the respectable victims who pull up their pants and have don’t have the wrong kind of past. We don’t have to be moralistic advocates. We don’t have to worry about whether or not admitting the evil they’ve suffered plays into our opponents’ hands because, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it’s not about winning anymore.

It even serves as a curb against our worst, vindictive excesses. Since we know that beyond the temporal justice we rightly seek in this world–stopping bullying, ending police brutality, saving the unborn–ultimate, divine judgement will either be served at the last day, or has already been handled at the Cross, we are less likely to vindictively fall into victimizing the oppressor and continuing the cycle of violence.

Everything changes in light of the Victim who is the Judge.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are You a Curious or a Studious Theology Student?

Domain of the wordIn the Christian tradition, curiosity has always been considered a vice. That’s surprising to most of us used to the more modern sense of the term. For many of us it tends to mean something like inquisitiveness or a thirst for knowledge. To call curiosity a vice would seem like another line of argument for seeing the Christian tradition as fundamentally anti-intellectual and hostile to questions. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding, however.

In his essay ‘Curiosity’, John Webster–the theologian’s theologian–claims that, “Christian theological intelligence is exercised in the conflict between studiousness and the vice of curiosity” (The Domain of the Word, pg. 193).

Curiosity, then, has a positive counterpart in the form of the virtue of “studiousness.” Indeed, Webster says we can only know what curiosity is as a deviation or perversion of studiousness since vices have no positive reality of their own. To condemn curiosity, then, is not to condemn reason or thought wholesale, but its perversion by sin and idolatry.

But how should we understand these twinned realities? What is it that relates the two and what separates them? As I begin my Ph.D. courses, I’ve been giving some thought to the point of my studies. Just why exactly am I doing what I’m doing and how should I be doing it? And also, how should I not be approaching them? Webster’s reflections in this essay have been stimulating and helpful to me, so I figured I’d summarize and highlight some quickish thoughts for the benefit of other theological students, whether in school or not, pastoral or lay.

Studiousness

According to Webster, studiousness and curiosity are related in that they are both movements of our intelligence to “come to know” that which we don’t know. But the motive and the means of these relationships to unknown knowledge are what distinguishes them.

So what is studiousness? Well, it “is a strenuous application of the power of the creaturely intellect” to figure something out for the first time, or understand something better than you did before. Studiousness is a virtue particular to created beings who can come to know as opposed to God who just knows because he knows. Our way of knowing requires effort, energy, and time–as do all the activities of finite, embodied beings. “God, in short, knows as the uncreated one, creatures know as creatures” (194).

Furthermore, studiousness is the way the “well-ordered creaturely intellect” comes to know things. According to Webster, that involves at least two things. First, it means “earnest, arduous application of the mind.” It is an activity in the fullest sense of the word. Studiousness recognizes that knowledge doesn’t simply happen to you. Second, “it is a reflective” activity that can be judged according to standards of excellence that are intellectual and moral. Intellectually it is an activity that must treat the object of study with respect and integrity, coming to its conclusions, its representations, without undue haste or carelessness (195).

Morally, we come to the fact that studiousness is related to the very natural desire to come to know. And this is where Webster says “an element of ambivalence” can enter in.

Curiosity

Using the language of Aristotle and Aquinas, Webster states: “Curiosity results from the corruption of intellectual appetite”(195). Indeed, he quotes Aquinas who says, “curiosity does not lie in the knowing precisely but in the appetite and hankering to find out.”

From here, Webster gives us four of the “elements” of curiosity, which I can only briefly touch on.

First, curiosity is a corruption in that it aims at improper objects of new knowledge. It strains to know what it is not appropriate for it to know. It refuses to acknowledge the creaturely limit and wants to know “as God knows”, or to focus on those things which God has given it to know. Curiosity sits in the garden devising ways always to snag the one fruit that’s off-limits (195-196).

Second, it’s a way of learning about the world, to created realities, without referring them to their Creator. It’s a sort of “lust of the flesh” (1 Jn. 2:16) applied to knowledge; it is a desire to know things without pushing on to see their relation to God and his glory (196). It is a Romans 1 reality, in that sense.

Third, curiosity “is a deformation of the manner or mode of intelligence, when the movement of coming-to-know takes place inordinately, indiscriminately, and pridefully” (196). In other words, wanting to know can become an addiction to the rush of learning new things so that you end up neglecting other goods, crossing lines, and so forth. Intellectual greed also leads you to get caught up less in the truth or goodness than the “novelty of the object of new knowledge.” Or, again, curiosity leads to self-satisfied pride in our exceptional intelligence the more we come to find out.

Fourth, related to the last, curiosity chases knowledge for wrong ends. Either to puff yourself up, to use it for your own gain or power, or other unrighteous ends. Even good study can fall under “curiosity” if aimed at your own pride.

What Does Curiosity Look Like in Theology?

Next Webster examines the ways and reasons that curiosity can enter into the spiritual work of theological study.

First, curiosity creeps into theology when we forget the “location and situation” of our work. “Theology takes place in a sphere in which God the teacher is lovingly present to reconciled creatures, summoning the intellect to attentiveness and learning” (198). Curiosity forgets this and leads us to study, not in response to God’s prior direction, but as an independent exercise of intellectual acquisition (198).

Second, curiosity in theology leads to a certain restlessness that gives pride of place to the novel, the “creative”, and cannot follow the particular course theology should take. In a word, faddishness (198).

Third, curiosity “stops short at surfaces.” There are a lot of disciplines to master in theology (text-based, historical, etc). Webster says that all of these phenomena, though, serve to point beyond themselves as signs towards God. Curiosity can get caught up in the signs for their own sake instead of pushing onwards towards the theological end, which is to know God. In other words, it’s the kind of study of the Bible that gets caught up in historical minutiae of the text, trying on novel interpretations and grammatical innovations, all the while forgetting that the point of studying Scripture is to hear the voice of God (198).

Fourth, curiosity corrupts the character of theological work by leading us into pride, or the drive towards individualistic advancement, or a separation of theological study from the “common life of the church”(199).

Fifth, curiosity forgets the chief goals of theology which are “contemplative and apostolic.” Theology aims at delight in God. As such, it is apostolic because this truth is lovingly spoken to others that they might be built up and not fall into error. Curiosity aims only at itself and so curves inwards.

How to Avoid Curiosity in Theology?

Well, Webster is very clear that avoiding curiosity requires the work of the Holy Spirit who gives the gift of temperance, restraint, only with the new birth as a person is remade in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). The Holy Spirit redeems, perfects, and redirects created minds, bringing them out of their prideful, lusting alienation from the life of God by the gift of a new, regenerated nature conformed to the image of the Son (Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10; 199-200).

According to Webster:

Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification. (200)

Theology is the only discipline where the object study is your only, ultimate hope in doing it well. Webster notes three dimensions to this.

First, “immoderate desire” for novelty in coming to know can only be curbed if theological students come to recognize their place in the “pedagogy of divine grace.” In other words, “The grace of God has appeared…training us” (Tit. 2:11). We need to understand our study as a work taking place in the space of grace opened up by the grace of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit which sanctifies our reason. This is why:

The saints lack curiosity; but they are eagerly studious, devoted to acquiring the knowledge proffered by divine revelation. In theology, the affections, will and intellect are ‘fixed’ on the ‘ways’ of God (Ps. 119.15), ‘delighting in’ and ‘cleaving to’ the divine testimonies (Ps. 119.24), turned from ‘vanities’ (Ps. 119.37) in order to ‘meditate’ on the divine law (Ps. 119.48), eager to be taught knowledge (Ps. 119.66). Such is the studious theological intellect sanctified and schooled by divine grace. (201)

Second, curiosity fades when theologians devote themselves “to a singular matter with a definite interest.” It’s not so much that theology restricts itself to a few subjects, but that it learns to relate all subjects to the one subject it’s supposed to be directing everything towards: God and his works in the history of redemption. This maintains its focus as a “single science” instead of a disconnected study of whatever happens to interest us at the moment (201).

Third, directing theology towards its ultimate goal, the love of God, “mortifies” curiosity. Focusing on the self-communicating love of God cuts at the natural selfishness of curiosity, as it continually draws us out beyond ourselves into the love of God and our neighbor (202).

To cap it off, Webster closes with a prayer from Aquinas, “Ante Studium” (HT: David Bunce):

Ineffable Creator . . . You are proclaimed the true font of light and wisdom, and the primal origin raised high beyond all things. Pour forth a ray of your brightness into the darkened places of our minds; disperse from our souls the twofold darkness of sin and ignorance. You make eloquent the tongues of infants: refi ne our speech and pour forth upon our lips he goodness of your blessing. Grant to us keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech. May you guide the beginning of our work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion, for you are true God and true Man, who live and reign, world without end.

Soli Deo Gloria