Monday, June 25, 2007

CiC Postings

In order to have a more centralized record of my postings for the benefit of myself if noone else, from now on, I'm gonna provide a link here at this blog each time I make a post to the CiC blog. As I say, this just makes it easier for me to keep my own stuff straight and avoid duplicative postings. If this is useful to anyone else, that's a good thing too.

So with that in mind, the following is my latest post to CiC, made earlier today:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Harold Bloom, America, and Mitt Romney

It's been over a decade now since the esteemed literary and Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom published his rather unstellar foray into religious criticism, titled The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. Bloom's seeming obsession in the book with finding a robust gnosticism common to most brands of modern American religion was panned rather widely in both religious and secular circles. As a result, Bloom's book was quickly discarded by the religious world, and quickly forgotten by the secular world. Given Bloom's stature, this was a rather surprising turn of events. While sharing in the criticism of Bloom's analysis and often unfocused writing, I do think Bloom was on to something that is uncomfortably relevant as the nation turns its attention to the upcoming presidential election.

Bloom spent a good deal of time in his book discussing Mormonism. While there is much in his discussion that is problematic, he does seem to make an interesting point regarding the relationship between Mormonism and the United States. Bloom seems to argue that it's not really surprising that Mormonism is America's unique contribution to world spirituality. Why? Because among other things, Mormonism teaches that people can become 'little gods' reigning over their own worlds. This, Bloom seemed to suggest, is about as American an idea as there is. In my mind, Bloom may not be totally right, but he's more right than wrong.

During this presidential primary season, much has been made of the Mormonism of Mitt Romney. Specifically, it has been regularly asked whether Romney's Mormonism is relevant to his fitness as a presidential candidate. My own view is that while there should not be a religious litmus test for our politicians, the manner in which one's religious views informs her approach to public policy and governance is clearly relevant in deciding whether she should be elected. To that extent, Romney's faith is a relevant issue the same way that any candidate's faith is relevant.

But if Bloom is on to something in saying that Mormonism was birthed in America for a reason, then it could be argued that Mitt Romney might actually be the MOST qualified presidential candidate. Why? Because if a doctrinal element of his faith cuts through and captures one of the basic essences of the American psyche (becoming master and commander over our domain and being our own little sovereign), he may unknowingly understand America far better than most of us would ever want to admit.

Let me be clear. I'm not saying this because I am sympathetic to Romney as a candidate, or Mormonism as a faith option. I am decidedly unsympathetic to both. What I am saying is that many of the same people who think Mormonism is a kooky religion and Romney shouldn't be in the presidential race probably have a lot more in common with both than they think. While one result of this might be to conduct a more thoughtful examination of Mormonism, the ideal result would be for us to conduct a more thoughtful examination of ourselves and our country. We tend to avoid this, because we all like having our sacred cows that are off limits to tampering with. But it's unnerving to me that a rather important celestial tenet of Mormonism that is often considered especially bizarre is a tenet that seems to be so strongly embraced terrestially by so many of us, and yet, so few of us seem to see the contradiction. Mormonism is just amping up a mainstream American attitude. This isn't kooky, it's ominous.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Happy Father's Day - 2007

We are once again nearing the annual celebration of fathers in America. Unfortunately, the practice of bashing men and Dads with particular sharpness is often part of the 'celebration'. Don't believe me? Just today, CNN online has a rundown of 'hapless Dad' moments as a special present for fathers this weekend. Oh the joys of being a Dad, one of the last remaining socially acceptable punching bags we have left in this country!

Now one would think that the church would have long ago spotted a golden opportunity to counteract and contradict this attitude. One would especially think that the evangelical church, which often claims with particular zeal its desire to be a dramatic alternative to the culture, would be leading the charge in affirming husbands and Dads. One would think that evangelical churches could figure out how to love the Dads in their church for one Sunday a year without any strings attached, and without echoing the constant drumbeat of criticism and even disdain that fathers are regularly exposed to outside the church walls. One would think.

It is common knowledge that there is an enormous difference in tone and purpose between the average Mother's Day and Father's Day sermons. During my first full semester in seminary, I took my first preaching course. This course had about 50 guys in it, and at some point during the semester, the professor (who was an active preacher himself) touched on this dynamic in passing. He casually asked the class what Mother's Day sermons look like. We all said that in our experience, these sermons were affirming, encouraging, and very loving. In other words, the tone of the sermons to the Moms were exactly what they should be. Then the professor asked the class what Father's Day sermons look like. Virtually the entire class immediately said that these sermons were bashing, blaming, accusing, and very negative. The professor wasn't really trying to make any particular point here, but clearly, a point got made. A class filled with guys from all over the country all had the same story to tell about their Father's Day experience in evangelical churches.

I know Dads who will not go to church on Father's Day precisely for this reason, and I have often been tempted to join them - and I'm not a Dad. I mean, why in the world would a Dad want to go to a house of worship, quite literally a place of sanctuary, to hear a Christianized version of what the TV, the movies, the blogs, and the culture are attacking him on everyday? Does he really need to hear a pastor tell him that his shortcomings are directly related to his wife's problems, his children's problems, the church's problems, and the world's problems? Do pastors really think they're saying anything original when they bombard the men in their congregations with these kind of guilt trips? Do pastors have any idea how much they sound like the very culture they claim to be opposing? Are pastors and churches even bothering to ask these questions themselves?

I will admit that preaching a positive and Biblically-based sermon on Father's Day is no easy task. It is very difficult to find good human models of fatherhood in Scripture. I will also admit that Dads shouldn't be given an exemption from having to hear difficult stuff from their pastor just because they regularly are exposed to a much coarser version of the same thing outside the church walls. But all of this misses the point. It may sound obvious and self-evident, but it bears repeating. As best I can tell, Father's Day was established as a celebration of Dads and what they do. Is this really the best time to deconstruct the perceived inadequacies of fathers? If somebody gave a 30 minute speech on someone else's birthday about all of that person's perceived shortcomings, it would be viewed as crass, hurtful, inappropriate, and completely out of bounds. Why? Because a birthday celebration is exactly that - a celebration. How in the world can churches be so oblivious as to think anything else with regard to their messages to fathers on Father's Day? Have we really lost that much discernment?

So on this Father's Day weekend, I say, with no strings attached, without reservation, and with pure joy and appreciation, 'Happy Father's Day' to my own Dad, my father-in-law, my brother who is now a Dad, and to my brother-in-law who is also a Dad. Thank you for being a Dad, and don't listen to the Dad-bashing, whether it comes from CNN or a sermon. Lastly, I urge pastors to set a much better example in their preaching than merely mimicking the culture. Many of the Dads in your congregation deserve better, and God the Father demands better. This whipping horse has been whipped enough.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Kierkegaard's 3rd Dimension of Humanness

As mentioned in a previous post, while I think it is ill-advised to embrace all of Kierkegaard's thought, he nonetheless has much to teach us that is fruitful. Kierkegaard's philosophy of the human is one such area.

Kierkegaard believed there were four 'dimensions' of humanness. The first two dimensions are the self, and the world. We are currently in the season of high school and college commencements, and part of this annual ritual is the commencement speech. As Esther Meek has eloquently pointed out, commencement speeches are often preoccupied exclusively with Kierkegaard's first two dimensions of humanness. She laments that while these two dimensions are obviously legitimate, it is short-sighted to reduce all that we are as humans to 'me and my world'. She rightly speculates that one result of doing this is that commencement speeches today don't sound much different than their counterparts 30 years ago. Is it little wonder that so few of us remember anything at all about the commencement speeches we heard when we were wearing the caps and gowns?

Kierkegaard knew that humanness was not limited to these two dimensions. In particular, he saw a third dimension to humanness that he called 'The Void'. Put simply, The Void is that dimension of humanity that most confronts us with our own mortality, or contingency as Meek puts it. The Void is a dimension that makes itself known in our lives each time we are forced to grapple with the myriad of things that are outside of our control that nonetheless significantly impact our lives, and even our very existence. Uncertainty about the future, a debilitating disease, the loss of a job and the security it brings, marital strife, a troubled child, driving in hazardous road conditions, mid-life crises, the death of someone close to you, and infertility are just a few real-life events that happen to people everyday that bring Kierkegaard's 3rd dimension of humanness squarely into play. It is the dimension where fear, affliction, anxiety, and doubt often find their safest home. It is what the secular world sometimes calls 'the abyss', and it's what St. John of the Cross called 'the Dark Night of the Soul'.

The Void is a place where we have to come to terms with the fact that we are not the non-contingent and non-dependent Creator that we so often deceive ourselves into adopting as a practical matter in our day to day living. To borrow from Van Til, The Void is the place where we most have to wrestle with the Creator-creature distinction, and the fact that we are utterly dependent beings and that God is in charge. Meek puts this very well:

[O]ne only begins to know God truly if one truthfully acknowledges one’s own creatureliness, one’s own contingency, the fact that we are, in the metaphor of the Psalmist, a vapor. In our brokenness, we’d rather delude ourselves concerning our invincibility. An experience of The Void powerfully exposes our contingency, leaving us no corner of presumption in which we may continue to hide. In it I know truthfully, authentically, that if I am not sovereignly, graciously, held on to by Someone Who is not contingent, I am dead meat.

Thus, it is often through experiencing The Void dimension of humanness that we rediscover what it means to be authentically human, because it is here where we are most directly confronted with our created and finite status and where our ability to avoid and hide from this confrontation is most taken away from us. Therefore, this 3rd dimension is often pivotal in moving us to Kierkegaard's fourth and final dimension of humanness - being in covenant relationship with the non-contingent, sovereign, loving Lord. Given our proclivity and downright lust to be our own sovereign (Gen. 3) rather than being covenantally loyal to the true Sovereign, it makes sense that being in right relationship with God often requires the pruning of The Void to get our hearts and minds correctly oriented to the truth of our condition and of God's character and presence.

Commencement speakers would be wise to move their treatment beyond the first two dimensions, and tackle The Void in their words to the next generation. I think they will find that teenagers and young adults are already quite familiar with this dimension and would welcome an articulate treatment that brings some sense into the rampant anxiety and fear that so many of them feel even on graduation day.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Exhibit A to the Previous Post

The mainline Presbyterian denomination in the United States (the PCUSA) reported today that total denominational membership fell by another 46,544 in 2006. This drops the PCUSA's total membership count below 2.3 million and continues a trend of steady membership losses going back uninterrupted to the 1960s, when total membership once stood well over 4 million. While the PCUSA's membership has declined by 2 million people in the last 40 years, the total population of the United States has increased by over 100 million during the same period.

In the coming days, there will no doubt be extensive opining about this. There will be folks who will try to convince us that the decline isn't all bad, and that the glass is actually half-full (the head of the PCUSA OGA has already tried to make this argument today). Then there will be those who view this as one more nail in the coffin and use it to conduct a post-mortem on the denomination. Regardless of how one chooses to spin the statistics, one thing is clear, at least to me. The grand vision of Kingdom restoration given to us in the OT prophetic material bears precious little resemblance to the mainline contraction. Trying to spin the severity of the contraction completely misses the point. Scripture's vision of restoration is comprehensive, overflowing, abundant, and bless-filled. This is the standard by which we should be measuring the health of our congregation and/or denomination. That so few want to subject their status to Scripture's expectation of Kingdom may well be part of the reason why the Kingdom doesn't seem to be advancing very much.

The Mainline Meltdown in light of Unity vs Inclusivity

When basing arguments on semantics, we must be very careful to try and avoid two common errors. The first error is in trying to forge a position based on very fine points of distinction. Scholastic theology was often guilty of seeking out every conceivable distinction no matter how minor, and then elevating these minor distinctions into platforms of unnecessary division. Put simply, we are susceptible to making very serious separations based on what I like to call 'distinctions without a difference'. The second error is the opposite error from the first. This is the error that tries to gloss over very real distinctions by deemphasizing differences. Semantically, this often means adopting a very lazy employment of language, where distinct terms with distinct meanings are used interchangeably, thus, obscuring the very real differences that exist. This often results in what I like to call 'blob theology' that is shapeless, non-descript, and devoid of particularity and stability. I would argue that in the case of both errors, the philosophical imperatives of the people involved are brought to bear on their use of language, so that linguistics are made to fit the presuppositions of the speaker/writer. I would further argue that in my experience, evangelicals tend to be more susceptible to the first error (evangelicals have an unfortunate history of dividing over almost everything), while mainline liberals tend to indulge the second error (promoting a false unity contrary to all evidence, that is an insult to reality). It is this second dynamic that I'd like to focus on in this particular post. If you're wondering why a discussion on semantics has any real meaning or implications upon real life, I'd ask you to bear with me for a minute. It's coming.

Mainline theology has gotten very comfortable using terms like 'unity' and 'inclusivity' interchangeably. But these two terms mean materially different things. Part of the problem in analyzing the mainline drift into heterodoxy is in dissecting its blending of terms like these and figuring out what exactly is meant by the mainline when it uses 'unity' and 'inclusivity' to describe some common definition. As best I can tell, when these words get tossed around in mainline discourse, what is being communicated is the desire to be accepting of everyone as they are, and to exhibit a great oneness as a result of the universal acceptance that is being strived for. The idea is that through total acceptance, inclusivity and unity are one and the same result, because differences that lead to division are being eliminated.

But there's a problem here. Inclusivity and unity do not mean the same thing, either according to Webster, or the Apostle Paul. Stanley Hauerwas at Duke is particularly helpful in flushing this out:

The unity of which Paul speaks, that between Jews and Greeks, is made possible through the common confession that Jesus is Lord, who has saved us by being raised from the dead. That unity is not based on the acceptance of everyone as they are because we want to be inclusive, but rather comes from the fire of Christ's cross, through which we are transformed by being given distinctive service in God's kingdom. In Good Company: The Church as Polis, 40.

Hauerwas notes a number of things about Paul's theology of unity that are crucial. First, Christian unity is based on a common salvific confession that Jesus is Lord. This is not a vision of universal acceptance devoid of any basic criteria of commonness. To the contrary, there is a normative confession that gives shape and meaning to the Christian community of faith. Differing opinions on this issue are not equally valid. This confession is based upon the early Christian creedal understanding of Christ that Paul recites in 1 Cor. 15, which includes the supernatural bodily resurrection of Christ. To deny this or to declare it non-essential is to undo the substance of the common confession that forms the most important basis for unity. Welcome to the mainline's 'unity' dilemma.

Second, notice also that Paul's theology of unity is not based on universal acceptance of people as they are. In Paul's theology, unity is derived from the Holy Spirit's ministry of tranformation in the lives of the individuals of the faith community. Again, this is not a vision of accepting people as they are, and embracing their unchanged status and celebrating it. To the contrary, the same Paul who declared that 'there is no one who is good, not one', and that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Rom. 3) is the one who later emphasized unity in the community through the ministry of 'transformation through renewal' (Rom 12). Paul is not proposing a glorious unity through common and unaddressed sin, but a glorious unity through common transformation that attacks sin head-on.

This then leads to the third and final point - unity is achieved as the supernaturally transformed members of the community follow God's call to unique service for the Kingdom. Unity does not mean a bunch of clones who are gifted the same way and do exactly the same things. To the contrary, Paul's theology of gifting is diverse (Rom. 12.6ff, 1 Cor 12)), yet he envisioned a common Body where each part of the Body was uniquely essential to the health of the whole (1 Cor. 12). There is one Kingdom, but there are many different works of the Kingdom, and unity is achieved when the different works are working together for the common cause of Christ and his Kingdom. In order for these different parts to work together, there must be supernatural tutelage of the gifts and the callings. This is why supernatural change in the lives of believers is absolutly essential to transform otherwise disparate efforts into a global mission that is focused and based on divine direction.

These critical distinctives have gotten lost in the mainline's sloppy linguistics. Linguistics matter to real life because they portray (or betray) one's perspective on the world, complete with that person's blindspots. The mainline is in meltdown in part because they have melted distinctive and robust concepts into a blob-like hybrid that lacks direction, purpose, or divine enabling. In seeking their version of unity, they have mostly lost the Bible's vision of authentic unity. The result has been tremendous division within the mainline that threatens its long-term viability. There is little I find more sad than reading story after story of churches desiring to leave the mainline for a more faithful fellowship, enduring harassment and litigation by the 'inclusive' governing bodies of the denomination as a result, and then still hearing pronouncements of unity from the denominational leadership. With such a blatant chasm between rhetoric and reality, one really has to wonder if the inmates have taken over the asylum. This is what a meltdown looks like, and it's not pretty. What's needed is linguistic clarity that is informed by Scriptural wisdom, rather than the wisdom of men. It's time for the mainline to stop filling up Biblical terms with extrabiblical meanings designed to eliminate all distinctives and rough edges. The result of this practice has been an increasing number of divisions and rough edges that shows no sign of waning. Somebody needs to put 2 and 2 together.