“I Used To Believe X For Reason Y…” And the Failure of Intellectual Imagination

thinking homerWe seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others. One of the most glaring (and personally annoying) examples of this is on display in many modern “intellectual conversion” narratives. It could be about any issue really, whether politics, or religion, or broader ethical issues. It’s very common to find a thread along the lines of:

“I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful Reason Y.  Reason Y must be only reason to believe position X.”

While it’s the kind of argument you can find in just about any type of conversion article, I see it most often with stories about conversion on the issue of same-sex marriage in the church, or just in the culture at large. It’ll be an article by a post-Evangelical, or someone else, that goes something like:

You know, I used to be like the rest of my coreligionists. I used to hate gays, and was taught that they were worse than anthrax. I was very insecure about the issue because I felt that they threatened my whole way of being. If I admitted they were properly human, or whatever, then, my whole world would collapse. But that was because I’d never actually met one. Now I have and I realize that they’re kind, gentle, loving people. Also, I found out there are books with Christians who say that same-sex relationship are okay according to the Bible. I never heard any of these arguments, but now I have. So, I’ve changed my mind.

Now, I don’t bring this up to settle the issue of same-sex marriage here. (Honestly, if you try to argue about it in more than a tangential way in the comments, I’m simply going to ignore it or delete it. That’s not the point.) Nor am I saying there isn’t a case to be made along those lines. What I am saying is that the move that comes next is simply a failure of intellectual imagination. You see, what often follows is something like:

See, that’s where people are. This is the only place they can be. These are the only reasons that someone could hold the position that I used to hold.

Because they used to be hateful and insecure in their former intellectual position, everybody must be. Because their opinion was held on the basis of flawed, prejudiced reasoning, everybody’s must be. What never seems to occur to them is that you could hold a moral opposition to same-sex marriage all the while having no lack of personal warmth, goodwill, and so forth towards gay people. Or, that you could read some of that same scholarship and simply disagree on other intellectual grounds. And yet that really is the case. It’s like a child who only used to believe the earth revolved round the sun because his mom told him it was spun about by great strings and wires, but upon discovering that there were no strings and wires, thereby came to believe there were no other reasons to believe such a notion.

Again, this happens in other areas too. There’s many an article on Calvinism or Arminianism that covers the same, familiar steps. “I used to be an Arminian because I thought Calvinists were mean and I’d never read Romans 9. But then I read Romans 9 and met a nice Calvinist.” Or, “I used to be a Calvinist, but then Roger Olson told me about free will and John 3:16. If only people would read John 3:16 and read Roger Olson, nobody would be a Calvinist.”  Of course, these are ridiculously simplified, but you get the point.

This, as I said, is a failure of the intellectual imagination, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and I’d love others to weigh in on), it’s one that seems increasingly common. I will say that I’m fairly sure it has something to do with the narcissism of human experience. The story we know best is our own and our human tendency is to shrink the world to fit our experiences. We take our personal stories, and instead of seeing them as one, particular, unique experience, we expand them out and unjustifiably universalize them. Did you have a bad time in a repressive, stale, and abusive Evangelical church? That must be all of Evangelicalism. Did your belief in God’s sovereignty collapse in the face of tragedy? Everybody’s must.

I suppose this is merely another angle on the problem with the absolutizing of personal experience that Alastair Roberts has brought up before, and serves to reinforce his argument that we maybe need to pump the brakes on how much we press the importance of personal narrative in theologizing. Still, I don’t want to entirely rule out the valid place that our own story has to play in the discovery of truth. My friend Preston had a very thoughtful post yesterday on the idea of midrash in exegesis. Ironically enough, though, it highlighted from a different angle the danger that occurs when we place an overemphasis on our own story as the locus of truth and meaning. By assuming everyone’s intellectual experience must be just like ours, we end up invalidating the intellectual and moral experiences of others that don’t fit our paradigm.

This, as I’ve mentioned before, is another reason to prioritize Scripture in our theological reasoning. As Bavinck reminded us, personal confession and experience is inevitably part of our reflections. Still, by focusing our reasoning and reflection on Scripture, we are submitting our own experiences, logics, and so forth, to the only Story or Word, that has any claim to be comprehensive enough to include, correct, and make sense of them all–God’s own.

Well, once again I’ve rambled far longer than I intended. For what it’s worth, don’t be an intellectual narcissist. Before you go extrapolating your own former experiences, thought processes, and prejudices to those who hold positions you used to, stop, have an actual conversation with them. You might be surprised at the results.

Soli Deo Gloria

My Evangelical Story Isn’t So Bad (Or, a Ramble on Experience, Biography, & Theology)

evangelicalsCultural narratives come and go. For instance, looking back at the movies of 50 or 60 years ago, narratives of patriotism and love of country were pretty popular. Nowadays, stories of suspicion and conflicted loyalties are far more common. I mean, in The Avengers even Captain America has to have his doubts-about-my-country moment before he dons the flag again, in order to be believable or appealing to us.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen one narrative, in particular, rise to ascendancy: the story of broken religious faith–either to be recovered, transformed, or possibly forfeited forever. While they can be found in most traditions, given my own context, I’m thinking of the “I had a terrible Evangelical experience” story in particular. An expanding number of blogs, long-form articles, and memoirs dedicated to telling these stories have emerged, and sold quite well. Indeed, it seems to be a wave with no end currently in sight.

Of course, even those specific to Evangelicalism come in different forms. For some, there’s a story of flight from churchly abuse and control. Others share their experiences in “purity culture” with its repressive and distorted teaching on sexuality and personhood. Still others give us insight into communities of scared, intellectual obscurantists set to repress all questions and intellectual honesty. A lot of it is really sad, heartbreaking stuff, for a number of reasons.

In the first place, like I said, the stories themselves are just sad. I think it would be difficult to read more than a few of them and remain unmoved by the pain of some of our brothers and sisters. Beyond that, at times, they seem to have the unfortunate effect of playing into the larger cultural perceptions/misconceptions people have about Christianity in general, and theologically conservative Evangelicalism in particular. To outsiders there’s a little bit of the “see, I knew it” effect at work. Of course, if it’s the truth, well, there’s no sense hiding it and it’s just something we have to deal with.

I think the thing that weighs on me, though, is that most of this doesn’t reflect the majority of my own very positive experience being raised in Evangelicalism. In other words, I’m saddened because I know it doesn’t have to be that way–I’ve seen it myself.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way – Now, I won’t lie, I’ve seen my fair share of church wreckage. I’ve been at church at least twice a week for most of my life. My mom has led women’s Bible studies since before I can remember, and my dad’s been an usher and an elder of sorts, which means I’ve been there for the pettiness and hypocrisy. I’ve watched churches split because of pride and an overweening sense of power. I’ve sat in worship services that look like concerts and heard sermons that made me long for a Tony Robbins pep talk. I’ve mourned pointless, commercialized building projects put ahead of local service. I’ve even told my own story about the awkwardness of growing up Palestinian in a Pro-Israel tribe. In other words, I have plenty of criticisms of what we might think of as generalized Evangelicalism.

Overall, though, growing up Evangelical has been a mostly positive thing for me.

I’ve been taught my whole life that Jesus loves me like the Bible says he does and that cared about me enough to die and rise again for me. I’ve had a number of good, humble, and faithful leaders and pastors who have lived out that kind of Jesus-love towards me. I’ve had elders praying for me during sicknesses. I’ve had church families deliver meals to my house when my mom was recovering from surgery. I’ve had small group leaders guiding me and my friends through awkward transition years, faithfully pointing me to Jesus when I was tempted to look elsewhere.

I don’t think I was taught anything super weird or repressive about sex. I mean, I was in the kind of junior high youth group that made goofy videos with Barbie and Ken dolls to lighten the mood, while they encouraged hormonal 13-year-olds to pursue Jesus’ vision for sexuality without shame or fear. There was definitely A LOT of grace. And while I recently have gravitated towards the Reformed tradition, partially for it’s unabashed enthusiasm for cultivating the intellectual life, I’m not sure I ever felt mentally stifled in the churches I grew up in.

I’ve seen and been a part of really great, faithful, welcoming Evangelical churches. They’ve provided resources and teaching for cultivating healthy, biblical sexuality. They’ve cared about the outsider. They’ve ministered to the poor. They’ve funded overseas missions, built orphanages, and schools. They’ve created spaces for people with questions. They’ve pointed us towards God and our neighbor with humility and passion. In other words, I’ve grown up in a sort of gentle Evangelicalism that I don’t recognize as the background to these stories of broken faith, or betrayed trust.

So, once again, I know it doesn’t have to be that way.

Biography and Theology – Where am I going with all of this? Well, there are a few places I could go, I suppose, but the reality I’ve been working through, again, is recognizing how much biography influences theology, and working through the implications for our conversations with each other. A number of these stories of pain or frustration are told as the background to shifts in theological perspective. Some of these shifts are ones that, honestly, I think are wrong and ultimately harmful. From my perspective, they represent understandable over-reactions to the association of good doctrine with bad practice. I’ve said this before, but in theology, “abuse doesn’t take away proper use.”

Still, these are real experiences and we have to deal with that as we talk about the church, theology, and Evangelicalism. Often-times I’m so locked into seeing people as positions to be corrected, I forget that they are storied-people to be heard. People respond viscerally to words and concepts that have functioned fairly positively in my own life, many times because of our differing stories. My fairly positive Evangelical experience isn’t the only one out there, which is probably part of what accounts for the relative slowness with which I’ve embraced the theological changes I have made. I haven’t been in as much of an existential rush. If I don’t recognize that, I probably won’t be of much use to them as anything more than a sparring partner.

Of course, the opposite is also true. I suppose it’s very hard when you’ve had these difficult experiences to stand back and think, “Well, maybe that’s not the only way of believing X doctrine. Maybe there are sounder, more healthy ways to approach X.” Instead, I’d imagine it’s probably pretty easy to fall into, “You’re an Evangelical, and therefore you and your churches are probably just like the people who hurt me. Whenever you say X, you mean Y hurtful thing” and so forth. But, honestly, that’s not always the case. Just as those of us with positive Evangelical experiences need to realize our stories aren’t the only ones out there, it might help if those with more negative stories try to recognize that same reality in reverse. The positive stories are real too. It’s not all that bad.

Bringing it Back – Reformedish Evangelical that I am, I can’t help but see this as another invitation back to the Scriptures. If we’re going to have conversations that amount to something more than a back and forth exchange of invincible moral experiences, we need to, as I’ve said before, understand what we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience.

We need to see that in the Bible we have the normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story gets the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited, weighed down with baggage, or ignorantly blind like ours tend to be. It’s the story big enough to encompass all of our stories without denying, or ignoring them.

As we re-engage the text then, there’s hope that the same Spirit who inspired these words might illuminate them, opening us up to his unchanging truth together. Those of us with comfortable Evangelical experiences might be awakened from our slumber to deal with the very uncomfortable struggles of others. And those of us with hurts and scars might be willing to receive healing medicines we’ve formerly rejected as poisons.

This was all a sort of incomplete ramble, of course, but for some of us it might be a start.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Sources of Wisdom (Or, How to Stop Being a Moron)

Proverbs was one of my favorite books in the OT as a teenager because it was just straight advice. Advice is a good thing when you’re a moron high schooler. I mean, I didn’t understand half of it, but the verses were short and it felt easier to read. When I hit college and went through my bitter realist phase (which I may or may not still be in) Ecclesiastes and Job jumped up the list. The reality that life doesn’t work out cleanly, that bitterness has corrupted our work and our play “under the sun”, and that our only hope is in Christ really resonated. It still does.

Still, now that I’ve got my own ministry working with college kids I find myself returning to the Proverbs. One of the things I’ve realized about my job is that I’m not just here to preach the Gospel. I mean, that’s my main job, but part of loving and discipling college students is teaching them some of basics of being an adult. Apparently, I’m supposed to teach them wisdom–the practical knowledge of living in God’s world. Go figure.

Since I’m still somewhat of a youngster myself, the Proverbs have been a blessing to me. In many ways it’s a biblical short-cut on the road to not being a moron.

As I started doing some more in-depth study, I picked up Tremper Longman III’s commentary on Proverbs in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series. (Book nerd note: it’s excellent, readable, preachable, and scholarly.) In it, he notes that not only do the proverbs teach us specific bits of wisdom and practical advice like, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1), a key tidbit to remember in the blogging world, but also teaches the way to gain wisdom.

Longman specifically notes four sources of wisdom in Proverbs–where morons ought to look to become wise:

1. Observation and Experience. This should be obvious, but wise people are those who pay attention to life and reflect on the meaning of their experiences. In 6:6-11, the teacher tells the student to go look at the ant, observe his ways, and learn diligence. Wise people stop and think about which of their behaviors work and which don’t. They consider the actions of others, the way the world, history and draw lessons from it. This is why typically older people have more wisdom. Longman points out that in the Proverbs it is always the father or the mother instructing the son and never the other way around. (pg. 75) This not a universal truth–I’ve met some old fools–but it is a general one, that you will grow wiser as you grow older because you’ve experienced more. So, if you’re young and wanting to gain wisdom, listen to older people who’ve gone before and learn from their experiences. It’s the first step to not being a moron.

2. Instruction Based on Tradition. This last point is the essence of the next source of wisdom: tradition. In this passage, a father tells his son to cling to the instruction that was taught to him by his father, which apparently has served him well in his own life:

Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight,
for I give you good precepts;
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
he taught me and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.”
(4:1-5)

See, tradition is not just dead, trite ritualism. Over the years accumulated observations about successful and failed strategies for living, truths of human nature, and relationships end up becoming “tradition” that we can learn from. To some degree we know this instinctively. When we want to learn a new skill or a trade, we apprentice ourselves to someone who knows it–an expert that’s been doing it long enough to know the ins and outs of the business. Living well is also a skill, a practice that people have been working at for a long time, and the wise take advantage of the wisdom of their elders. That’s another great way to not be a moron.

3. Learning from Mistakes. Connected to the last two is the idea of learning from one’s mistakes. A great amount learning from experience and heeding the wisdom of the tradition has to do with finding out what doesn’t work. The sages know that you’re gonna screw things up as you go. That’s why two common words you’ll find in the Proverbs are “discipline” and “correction.”

“Those who love discipline love knowledge; and those who hate correction are dullards.” (12:1)

“Those who guard discipline are on the way to life, and those who abandon correction wander aimlessly.” (10:17)

The idea is that the wise are those who receive correction, learn from their mistakes, and do not reject the counsel of those who are trying to return them to the way from which they’ve strayed. This is why pride is so foolish; the proud never learn from their mistakes that eventually lead to their destruction. (Prov. 16:18) On the contrary, the wise humble themselves to the point of loving correction because it leads to wisdom. (Prov. 9:8) The bottom line is that a significant part of learning from experience and from tradition is figuring out what didn’t work and avoiding it. Only morons don’t learn from their mistakes.

4. Revelation. Longman notes that while these three sources–experience, tradition, mistakes–are key for gaining wisdom, nothing is more foundational than revelation, for “at the heart of wisdom is God himself.” (pg. 78) This is clear from the very beginning:

“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (1:7)

How can you know how to live properly in the world, if you don’t know the character of the one who made it? Indeed, it’s not simply that God is an important feature of reality that one must account for in order to be wise. The Lord is the source of wisdom:

For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his saints.
(2:6-8)

Ultimately God is the one who teaches you through experience, tradition, and correction. Whatever you learn, you learn because of him. This is why, according to Proverbs, the way to gain wisdom, and yes, stop being a moron, is to humble yourself before the creator of the universe and ask him for it.

Wisdom in Christ

Finally, for the Christian the ultimate source of wisdom is Christ himself “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3) If we want to see the fullness of human life, to know what a truly wise life, a life lived in sync with the rhythm with which God created all things, then we must look to Christ. He is not simply wise, but wisdom from God himself, incarnate for us. (1 Cor. 1:30) Jesus is God’s gracious wisdom come to us–to help us stop being morons.

Soli Deo Gloria