Thursday, July 02, 2015

Theological Fundamentalism

One of the foundational understandings of biblical fundamentalism is that "if anything in the Bible is untrue, it's all untrue." This needs some unpacking (mostly because "true" has a relative definition depending on context), but ultimately it's set the Bible up like a tower - if any brick in the tower gets pulled out, the whole thing will fall down.

What I've been wondering lately is if there is a theological fundamentalism at play in the world as well. I wonder this because it seems to me there are people taking a hard line on some theological issues who don't necessarily have a traditional fundamentalist view of scripture. It certainly isn't fair to lump everyone into one box, especially if that box is so ill-fitting for many.

One would not need to be a biblical fundamentalist to be a theological fundamentalist, but there is a similar "tower" concept, one not dependent on a "literal" reading of scripture, but one based on a traditional systematic theology. Through the years of modernity (and even long before), Christian thinkers sought to organize our understanding of God into specific doctrines that fit together to form a cohesive whole (hence the descriptor 'systematic').

As we've reached a more post-modern way of looking at the world, some Christians are much more comfortable with a theology that doesn't fit together quite so well. There may have been some doctrinal manipulation to fit everything we know about God and the world into neat little bricks for tower building. As people are more comfortable with unknowing and mystery, some have seen fit to reshape some doctrines, to explain them in different ways that don't make for easy building blocks, some have been made more general and less concrete.

I don't believe this changes the general shape or core of Christian theology, but it's much less systematic. It doesn't arrive at a complete explanation of understanding. Theology is no longer a closed system for many people.

I suspect this is really disturbing to people who are very comfortable with systematic theological structures, especially those who operate under a modern perspective and find themselves alien in the world of post-modernity. This leads to real battles, hard lines drawn, and vociferous objections to many ways of speaking about theology (and the practical implications of such).

I might categorize the two approaches as 1) I need to know as much about God as possible to follow God well, or 2) I need to constantly ask new questions, challenge old conclusions, and embrace unknowing to follow God well.

I don't know that these approaches are necessarily incompatible, but it's certainly easy to see where conflict could arise. The problem comes because neither is really right or wrong. They're different - with different strengths and weaknesses.

Lately, we've seen some real knock-down, drag-out fights regarding how people understand God, interpret scripture, and make decisions for life in the world. It's been painful and divisive for the Church.

I'm not particularly sure what a solution might be. It's difficult for a fundamentalist (of any kind) to gracefully allow disagreement. Allowing known disagreement in others necessarily invites doubt or disagreement into one's own sphere of belief and I have great sympathy for the problems that might cause. I don't know if I can properly speak to this, since I personally consider doubt and disagreement as important parts of theological and personal faith development.

I do know, though, we need to work better of differentiating between how someone views scripture and how they view theology. We're not treating everyone with respect in the way we derisively marginalize them into boxes they find offensive. Understanding where people are and from whence they come and how their beliefs are structured should help us love one another or, at the very least, be more charitable in our discourse.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I Disagree!

I disagree... and that's a good thing.

Why does it feel like we always secretly hope, no matter how nice and accepting we are of other people, that they'll some day see the light and think like us? Yes, I suppose, on some selfish level, life would be easier if everyone thought exactly like me, but, really, if we're thinking about it, life would also kinda suck.

For one, there would be no one to tell us an idea is stupid until AFTER we've done it. Everyone would think it is a great idea and be really encouraging, right up until the point it goes horribly wrong, then they'd be all, "that was a terrible idea." Yeah, thanks. I got it.

We really need people to be different and think different. It's good for us. It's good for the world. We need to disagree. We need it. It's that important.

Now, of course, there are going to be some fundamental things that we'd like everyone to agree on - things like, "don't kill Ryan," that's a big one for me. Perhaps more generally, "don't kill people," but honestly, we don't really agree on that one anyway. The best we can hope is to be sincere in our desires, willing to change if our conscience leads us to do so, and respecting when others think differently.

I don't get this notion that my sincere beliefs should be those of other people. Yes, it's nice to have the validation when people do actually accept my reasons for belief and we do all need people who agree with us at some level for community and support, but why do we really expect everyone to agree?

This is especially troubling among Christians - who have (supposed) unity in Christ. It's not like we're coming from vastly different foundations when we disagree, we're essentially choosing different beliefs for the exact same reason.

I'll just call it out - my denomination responded to the Supreme Court ruling this week with a pretty well-worded conservative statement (as expected), explaining that its position has not changed and generally wishing good will towards all people. Great. But it ends with the line, "We pray that God will help us be examples of His truth in a world that needs to see God’s love demonstrated in word and deed more than ever."

This line could be construed just as it says - longing for truth - but earlier in the paragraph, truth was defined as a particular view of gay marriage. Now, I'm not expecting my denomination to change its stance over night (in fact, I think we ask the wrong questions and focus on the wrong things - as I've written about before), but it might be nice to be charitable and humble.

We're essentially saying, "We disagree and we hope God uses us to bring other people around to right thinking." I guess it's honest, if nothing else, which is good, but it's also sad.

I don't have a problem with what we believe (although I wish we'd talk about it better). I do have a problem with us assuming our convictions are definitive of a "Christian" of "faithful" position. It reeks of arrogance and it turns my stomach.

We also believe that we shouldn't drink alcohol. That's a Nazarene distinctive. We do it not because alcohol is inherently evil, but because we desire to be open to all people, even those who struggle with alcohol addiction or were hurt by its effects on their family, so we choose to forgo it as a means of supporting those people. Other Christians choose differently. We don't demonize them or use this veiled "truth" language to insinuate they're somehow wrong.

We just disagree.

As I said, I don't mind disagreement. It's a good thing. But we don't have to do it self-righteously. We also don't have to do it apologetically. Wouldn't the statement have looked better if instead of closing with a prayer that all people would be converted to our way of thinking we said something like, "We pray that God will help us be example of His truth in the world, that all people, ourselves included, would be converted to the Way of Christ, even if it means changing our long held beliefs."

That, to me, is the crux of real, healthy disagreement. I believe this, but I might be wrong. If I am, forgive me, but I can only do what I think is right. Let's keep talking and maybe one of us will change their mind, but if not, that's ok, too.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


So there's been a lot of talk about identity lately - between Caitlyn Jenner and the booming transgender conversation and now this insane saga with the NAACP in Spokane - it's like we're just not sure how to define anything or how to classify people. Do individuals get to decide which box to check or is there some objective standard to be applied?

I wonder if the real problem is our need to classify people in the first place? I heard a lot of conservative people decrying how terrible it is that Bruce Jenner had so many problems he couldn't see any other option but to become a woman. Those hypotheticals that rang out all over the internet became comically un-hypothetical when Rachel Dolezal said those immortal words, "I identify as black." What do we get to choose? It's more difficult to say, "but she's not black," if you're also on Team Caitlyn, isn't it?

I think we all know a Rachel Dolezal - maybe not someone who might potentially, allegedly, lied about her race to enhance her social position (and quite possibly the first American to ever "pass" the other direction... on purpose). But we know that white kid who grew up in a largely black neighborhood and identifies (perhaps subconsciously because I didn't think anyone would have the stupidity guts to say it out loud) as black.

They do that, though, not necessarily because of a race thing - it's cultural. When we have a society so thoroughly segregated - like we do in the US - it's almost inevitable that these cultural identities get associated with race. It's "black culture" not because there's anything specifically African-American about it, but simply because it's a culture with which a lot of African-American identify. From there, though, things get all jumbled up as we choose to identify race and culture together.

(Now, just to be clear, I am not condemning or condoning what Dolezal did - I simply haven't followed the story much because it seems like a really totally crazy waste of time - I had to even look her name up to use it here. I just think it's an interesting interjection in the larger conversation of identity we're having in this cultural moment.)

I've always been a fan of removing labels, getting rid of boxes - in fact I think I wrote about this very thing a couple months back, and to some extent in the Jenner piece a couple weeks ago. Maybe my perspective has shifted just a little bit with more time to think, but it seems like the issue with identity is not how we see ourselves, but how we're taught to see ourselves through the lens of culture.

We define man a certain way - and it really has very little to do with genitalia. Even when you hear personal accounts from transgender people, you don't hear, "I felt like I shouldn't have a penis," you hear, "I felt like I was in the wrong body." That can be a subtle difference, but the difference is real. They feel like they're in the wrong body because culture has told them they should feel a certain way based on the body they have. It's not that they objectively look at themselves as "wrong," but that seeing themselves through the lens of the larger society, things don't match up.

Now I certainly believe identity can get irreversibly intertwined with body over time. I can see where someone like Caitlyn Jenner could not feel like her true self if she's still a man - but so many transgender people can't afford the kind of surgery that might make that true - even so, it's still playing the box game. I'm not box A, like you think, I'm box B. Eventually, though, Box B will come to be defined in such a way that some people feel incapable of living there and we'll need box B1 and box B2 and we'll fight over those definitions as well.

Why can't we just let people be people?

Maybe that's a ridiculous pipe dream. I certainly don't see how its really possible in any society at all. Very few people are overtly creating boxes for others (although we do do it subconsciously) - but there are just averages. Stereotypes are what they are because they adequately describe some measure of the population. There are like two or three white guys out there who can dance... sort of. A cultural definition becomes what it becomes because it's largely true.

For most of human history you could say, "Most women have children," and be completely correct. Actually, you can still say it today and be correct, but the latest numbers have it at about 53-47 percent, so it may not always be true. There was a time, though, when a childless woman struggled with whether she could be called a woman at all. It was hard to feel secure in that box without having kids.

What it means to be a man or a woman largely changes from one culture to the next and across generations. Yes, there is still the biological element of things, which works at a very high success rate, but why do we make that the end all and be all of definitions? The sad truth is because we like boxes. Our minds are wired to categorize. We feel comfortable when we can define others. It also allows us to compare (I might not be very manly, but I'm macho star athlete, Bruce Jenner compared to that guy).

Perhaps this is why (in the Bible) Paul talks about Christians being neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female? To be a Christian is to forget identity altogether. No comparison. No competition. Now, the Church has historically been about as bad at this as you could possibly be, but that doesn't change reality. For Christians, we're supposed to see Sam as Sam, not as man or woman or white or black. It may be difficult for us to step outside our cultural definitions and categorizations, but it is what we're called to do.

To me, one of the best explanations of this whole idea is a story I heard or read sometime in the last few weeks. I have no idea where I saw (or heard) this and i'll be largely paraphrasing. I couldn't nail it down well enough to even find it on google - and I'm pretty good when it comes to internet searching.

It was a story about a mom scolding a child in a department store (or some such place), the child may have been wearing clothes of the opposite gender or just doing something odd that caused embarrassment for the mom. She said to her kid, "why can't you just be normal?" A bystander happened to overhear and addressed the mom saying, "You're not describing normal, you're describing average, and I'd think most moms want their kids to be something other than average."

On pure numbers, it's likely true. The average man might be a sports nut who likes cars and tells the occasional dirty joke, but that doesn't make this definition normal. It's just average.

Yes, I think it's silly for a woman to say, "I identify as black," when she's not really black (although our means of determining such are pretty culturally conditioned as well - that Skip Gates TV show taught me pretty much everybody in the US is a little bit black: for example, does me calling him "skip" slide me a little farther along on the "black" scale?). I have a little harder time making judgement on identifying as a man or a women against mostly because it seems like there's a lot of biology and psychology there that experts don't know much about, let alone me.

I'd prefer we really just allow people to be themselves. If we were better at this, perhaps these news stories of the last month wouldn't be stories at all - they'd just be people trying to figure out exactly who they are and express themselves more fully and honestly - and, in the end, isn't that all any of us wants to do anyway?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Evolution and Sin (Part II)

So, from Part I we've established the theory that God always intended Adam and Eve to sin. Free will requires an exploring of options, even those that aren't ideal for the world as God intends. Perhaps that first sin wasn't what John Wesley would call sin (even if they knew it was disobedient, they really couldn't have understood the consequences and implications), but in any event it created a rift in God's purposes and in the relationship between Creation and Creator. The tragic problem arises as these humans reject the reconciliation God has waiting for them, thus expanding the rift and the consequences of their sin.

I came to this belief (and when I say "belief" I don't mean so much a necessary tenet of reality so much as perhaps my best explanation for things we may never truly or fully understand) mostly as an attempt to avoid explaining the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a response to human sin; I don't think it should be seen as an afterthought and this better keeps that from being the case.

But, as I've gone through life, it really seems this fits better with what we experience. I've come to view the message of scripture concerning our eternal destiny a bit differently that it was explained to me as a child. I don't see our purpose here on Earth as escaping the world. Whatever heaven awaits us will most certainly be here, on Earth, when it's remade as God intended - or perhaps, when it's become all God intends.

Our experience as people is one of growth and development. As Christians we believe God works in our lives and through our lives to make us into something more than we once were. Our process of spiritual development and discipline brings real change in our lives - but it's not a reclamation of something we lost, but a growing into something to which we're destined.

There is a lot of debate these days about how judgment and eternal life work. The traditional view held our development to end at the end of the world - those worthy at this point would move on to heaven, those unworthy to hell. There's been a recent re-emergence of the notion that those who choose not to be a part of heaven (however it's defined) may simply be vanished, disappeared, eliminated - they might simply cease to exists, since a loving God couldn't rightly torture anyone for life (and also that torture might not be the most God-appropriate way to "encourage" someone towards repentance.

This last point hints of a notion that I tend to believe is best, even though it works against our traditional theology and reading of scripture. What if our chance to follow God, be holy, become the people we're intended to be doesn't end when our "regular" life ends. Someone once asked me, "What if the world to come is the same for everyone, but for those who've been touched and changed by the love of God find it heavenly, while to those who remain in their selfishness, it's hell?" I don't know the specifics of such a world - and I wouldn't want to venture a guess - but the idea that life will continue after resurrection much the way it does now (but with a the full reign of God's love in and through the world) makes a lot of sense to me.

It also brings with it, though, the notion that people might have eternity to come around to God's way of love. People might get forever to be rebellious and chance after chance after chance to reconcile. If it really is an eternity, then there's plenty of time for God's love to win over everybody. I still believe strongly in those scripture passages that seem to indicate not everyone will be saved (so maybe annihilation is the best option), but I'm also willing to admit I don't quite get the ramifications of eternity. An eternal world, ruled and infused with God's holy love and going on without end sure seems like the kind of place that will eventually win over everyone.

I'm not sure that isn't the best way to look at the world.

What this means, really, if we put both Part I and Part II together, is that God created a world in which people would choose selfishness as part of their inherent nature, but would, over time, given eternity, eventually learn to embrace the reconciliation offered by God, fully realized in Jesus Christ, and eventually become the kind of people who reject selfishness for an ongoing life of mutual, interdependent love. That's certainly a faithful, coherent, beautiful description of life that both maintains God's non-coercive love and human freedom.

That's a little shorter than Part I, but it seems a good place to stop for now (I promise, we'll really, actually talk about evolution in Part III).

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Systems are interesting. Complex, organized, inefficient, unpredictable. Systems are usually perceived as broken, unfair, unfeeling. That's likely right.

My wife took the Myers-Briggs test online today. She's done it before, but it's always interesting to see if things change. I took it too. I'm pretty much the same all the time (INTJ, if you care). Anyway, the explanation for mine talked about how people of my personality like to attack systems (usually in a good way) loaded with idealistic pragmatism. We have an unwavering belief things can work better and an irrational confidence we can do something to improve things. That's likely right, too.

I, along with about 80 others, were invited today to be part of the listening process for the strategic plan of the local school district. IO was, of course, flattered when I received the invite; less so when I found out how many people would be there. That's all ego. I didn't have high expectations that they'd really get anything concrete or specific out of the group. I'm not sure they did. I'm not sure they were planning to. (We provided some good general directions and we'll see how that translates to action later this summer.)

But one thing that did strike me as important was just how many people were there to generously and sincerely contribute to the process. There were a lot of people there - at least half weren't being paid to be there. There were a lot of diverse opinions and perspectives, but things were really positive and civil. People whose positions lead to our making assumptions about motives and character got a chance to be people. That was good.

It was also a chance, as I reflect, to really understand systems better. As much as my idealistic pragmatism wants to make me a tyrant, using my specific skills to improve the world around me (or some small part of it), things don't really work that way. Providing a strong education to 10,000 students requires, by necessity, a relatively complex system. It's going to be big and it's going to include people. It's not a problem to be solved or a puzzle to be cracked.

Yes, systems are problematic, but they're also necessary. Most systems, even dysfunctional ones, are made up on good, well-meaning people. Those people might act or react in less than ideal ways, but often that's in response to some systemic issue - the machine isn't working quite right and the parts are breaking.

I'm still a pragmatic idealist (I doubt I'll ever escape that) and I'm still an iconoclast when it comes to respecting tradition or authority (that was another character trait from my INTJ description), but I think I have a better appreciation for the necessary mess involved in systems. It bugs the heck out of me, but deep down there was a real recognition of broader understanding.

Whether it's a school district or a worshiping congregation, a family, workplace, or neighborhood, systems are what they are. They can be better, but they're never going to be depersonalized.

That might not sound like news to you, but it was my satisfyingly profound revelation for the day.