“Footprints” Thoughts

One of the great inspiring messages is “Footprints.” It’s author is unknown, but frankly that added to its popularity since it lacks any copyright issues. There are some claims as to who first wrote it. Some thoughts on the authorship and inspiration of it can be found at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/where-did-the-footprints-poem-come-from/

I always liked the story and can recall having one of

https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-web/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/27130053/footprints.jpg

those wallhangers with the story on it. But writing a sermon recently I began thinking about it more, and had reason to disagree with the story… just a bit. That being said, I am not trying to say, “It is wrong.” Rather, I am saying that perhaps the imagery can be a bit misinforming in some ways.

On a positive side, the story utilizes the image of walking and walking with Christ as a metaphor for the Christian life. I feel that is a strong metaphor. I did several posts a few years back on the use of “Walking With” as a metaphor. You can look at these if you want

Walking With. Part 1

Walking With. Part 2

Walking With. Part 3

Walking With. Part 4

Walking With. Part 5

Walking With. Part 6

So why would I have any problems with Footprints then? There are three (somewhat) minor issues.

Issue One. Task-Focus versus Person-Focus. In the imagery, Jesus carries the writer during difficult times. To me the image is one of being task-focused. The person goes through a time that he can’t continue, and Jesus carries him. To stay with the person in a difficult time suggests person-focused. To keep moving by carrying the person suggests a bit of greater interest in keeping to the task than to the person. But I believe that Jesus is more committed to us as people, than to the tasks we do.

Issue Two. Dependency. In some manner we are to be dependent on God. But generally speaking, God seeks us to mature, and that maturity comes through the trials. Peter notes that we go through suffering. James notes that we develop perseverence through the testing of our faith. The image of the story suggests more of a coddling. Kelly O’Donnell (in “Doing Member Care Well”) has noted that Jesus Christ in His handling His disciples maintained a balance that could best be described as in the region of Comforter and Challenger, while avoiding the extremes of Coddler and Condemner. Carrying to me suggests coddling.

coddling

Issue Three. Example. As I noted in my sermon (HERE). Jesus is our model for ministry. God did not create us with great power. He gave us the ability to be present with others in their struggles. We can’t carry people through their times of pain and struggles. We can suffer with the suffering. We hurt with the hurting. We can struggle with the struggling. We can take none of these things away. We can embrace a ministry of presence. We can bear the burdens of another, but only with mutuality, where others also bear our burdens.

Of these three issues, the only one that I consider strong is the third one. The first two are picky. However, if we want to understand what we are to do, following the example of Jesus, we need to understand that Footprints does not give us a good understanding of that role. It does, however, give a good image of the Christian life.

Here is another perspective (thanks to Chaplain Sal for sharing…

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Dreaming Small in a “post-Christendom” World

I am reading through the dissertation of one of my students when I was struck by a quote. She quoted Ed Stetzer who was in turn quoting Douglas John Hall.

“Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light. Christendom tried to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to worldly responsibility.”

(Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, 15)

This quote reminds me of one of my favorite posts, “Dream SMALL!!!” Feel free to read it HERE.

The context of the above quote is that of three eras of church history, as suggested by Alan Kreider (also referenced by my student):

  • pre-Christendom EraImage result for small
  • Christendom Era
  • post-Christendom Era

The pre-Christendom era began to end with Emperor Constantine (circa 311AD). The Christendom era began to disolve between the two World Wars. In Christendom, the Church and State are strongly linked.

I am a citizen of the United States and I minister in the Philippines. The Philippines is a product of Christendom. The archipelago was made up of many different peoples who did not have common identity until Spain came with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. The first 300 years of its collective identity found Church and State strongly linked together. Since then the Philippine identity has been more complicated.

The United States has been complicated from the very beginning. I have many friends back home that will loudly declare that the United States “is a Christian nation.” They argue that the US was founded on Christian principles and has some unique link between the Christian faith and the governance and identity of the US. I also have friends that make a nearly opposite claim— that the United States is the first “secular state.” The US governance radically separated ecclesiastical power from civil power, and absolutely rejected the notion of a “state religion.” Both views have strong support (as well as weak aspects). Probably a more accurate statement than either is that “The United States was the first post-Christendom nation.” The governance of the US was not founded on rejection of Christianity. On the other hand, it was seeking to break free from the strong link between church and state found in Europe. It was post-Christendom.

That is not to say that everyone was comfortable with that back then, or now. I am a Baptist missionary. I find it interesting that the Protestant Reformation was a challenge to (Catholic) Christendom in Western Europe. The Baptists, Anabaptists, and other Dissenter groups challenged the Westphalian Christendom accepted by both Catholics and Protestants. Despite this double-strength rejection of Christendom, Baptists are likely as any other group to struggle with understanding the Christian faith in post-Christendom terms.

We like “Big Dream” metaphors:. War (“Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War), Victory, and “Civilization.”

But the metaphors of pre-Christendom are small— As noted by Hall above, Jesus utilized yeast, salt, and light to describe Kingdom of God. That is interesting since the term “Kingdom” sounds big and much in tune with the thoughts of Christendom. Yet, Jesus makes it clear that the Kingdom is small— it is here and not here— it is inside of us… it is a bit of yeast worked into dough, a tiny seed hidden in the soil. It is a small grapevine in a big vineyard. Paul’s metaphors are not any bigger. The church is as a human body, or as a family.

In post-Christendom we can disengage our faith from our culture. We are not stressed out whether our government is passing laws that make our faith practice more comfortable or less comfortable. We are not concerned whether geopolitics appears to be working in our (however we define “our”) favor vice anothers’. We can be that bit of salt, light, and yeast used by God to transform bit by bit where we are.

Our language is not “Winning the world for Christ,” but being a witness of God’s grace to my neighbor and being an agent of transformation in my community. As I noted in the other post, “Dream SMALL!!!,” the Great Commission is actually pretty small— share your faith with someone, bring them into the church body, disciple them to be faithful followers of Christ, and repeat. It’s success is in its smallness— a perfect process for the post-Christendom world.

Three Servants: Guiding, Healing, Sustaining

Seward Hiltner was a leading, some would say THE leading, Pastoral Theologian of the 20th Century, serving as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He saw the pastoral function as best understood with the metaphor of the shepherd. A few weeks ago, Ptr. II Samuel spoke on this metaphor of the shepherd. Within the pastoral role, Hiltner saw three primary functions of pastoral care: These are Guiding, Healing, Sustaining. Others later added more. But for today, let’s stick with the primary three— Guiding, Healing, and Sustaining. I find these primary pastoral care functions illustrated in three servants in the story of Naaman the Leper. Please open your Bibles to II Kings 5: 1-14. So for those taking BP, you should note that I am using a passage from the Bible for illustrative purposes, rather than expositional or topical.

Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.

2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents[b] of silver, six thousand shekels[c] of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”

8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.

13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.

The first servant here is described as a young girl from Israel… living as a captive… a slave in Aram… Syria. This young girl typifies the first function of Pastoral Care. That is Guiding without much knowledge. This young girl did not seem to have a lot of knowledge. But that is okay. Hiltner points out that good guidance is not highly directive. He states that it should be more eductive than deductive. Deductive guidance is acting like a detective. I have studied your situation, and I am able to deduce that THIS is what is going on and THAT is what you need to do. Eductive guidance is drawing out. Picture a bucket that draws water from a well. It presumes that the other person already knows most of what they need to know… so you as a pastoral care provider help draw that out of him or her. Consider the case of the prophet Nathan speaking to King David. The story or parable of the Ewe lamb is a classic example of Eductived Guidance. Nathan really did not tell David anything he did not already know. David already knew that it was wrong for a rich and powerful person to use his power to steal from the poor and needy. This was not an issue he was confused about… but he needed to be reminded. Maybe he had sort of forgotten. Maybe he had rationalized his behavior. Or maybe he had bracketed his knowledge, compartmentalizing what he knew to be true from what he did. Nathan drew out what David knew, guiding him eductively. In this case, the young servant knew something that General Naaman did not know, but he needed to know, so she gave the guidance. There is a prophet in Samaria who can cure him of his leprosy. Apparently she did not know the prophet’s name or where he lived. If she knew these things, they would have been added to the letter and the King of Israel would not have been so distressed. She did not know much… but she knew enough to guide Naaman.

Guidance without much Knowledge is good… because the temptation in pastoral care is to be Clever. It is tempting to show off what we know. Someone comes to you about a marriage problem. It is tempting to start talking about the 3 Greek words for love… or the 4 Greek words, or 6, or 7 (depending on which book you are reading at the moment). But while you are showing off all of the cool things you learned in seminary, what you are doing is caring for yourself— satisfying your need to be seen as clever, knowledgeable, wise… when really they need just a little guidance, and have a great need to be listened to. Times of Guidance are actually great opportunities to practice the Ministry of Silence. That is not easy. Pastors love to talk… they don’t like to listen all that much. Seminaries have classes in Preaching. They have classes in Teaching. Some even have classes in Arguing or Apologetics. Not too many have classes in Listening. Yet guiding a little in an environment of unclever, silent listeing is commonly what the other person really needs. I struggle with this principle because I want to be seen as clever. Maybe you share that same problem with me. However, the second principle I am much better at.

The second principle is Healing… but without much skill. I am much better at this… since I have no real skills at healing. When Naaman finally gets to Elisha’s home. Elisha does not come out. Instead he sends a servant, described as Elisha’s messenger to pass on the healer’s words to him— go to the Jordan River and wash yourself 7 times to be healed. Naaman was angry. He wanted to be healed by the prophet… the professional healer… not simply get a message from his servant. People want to see an expert. In fact… in pastoral care, that is the temptation for a pastoral person— to be seen as the expert… especially an expert healer. If you as a pastor, or a chaplain, or as a seminarian visit a sick person, you will be asked to pray for them. Why? Typically, they believe that you as a religious professional have prayers that are just a bit more UMPHH then their own. And often, we love that. We love it when people believe that we are closer to God… that our prayers have more power— that our requests are put on the top of God’s to-do list. The temptation to be an expert can show itself in other ways as well. Celia is a nurse, and it is tempting when doing chaplain work at the hospital to draw from her nursing background and second-guess the doctors, nurses, psychiatric staff, and social workers. She fights that temptation. There are some ministers who believe that they have received from God the gift of supernatural healing or deliverance. That’s fine. Maybe they do. But most of the time, God doesn’t look for us to be the expert. Most of the time, God wants us to serve in a ministry of mediation. We connect those in need with the resources of healing— within themselves… with God… and with others.

Reading the passage here… Naaman wasn’t happy that a servant came out rather than Elisha. Naaman said “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.” In a different context he may have said… “I expected someone who would sprinkle me with holy water… mark me with olive oil… dust me with salt… blow cigar smoke or spit Tanduay on me… all while saying some holy incantation. Why didn’t he put his hand on my forehead and shove, while declaring “I declare you healed!!” But the servant was not a healer and that’s okay because Naaman did not need a healer. He needed a mediator— one who connected him to the one who truly heals. He did not need someone to wave their hands over him. He needed to hear the word of the Lord and obey it. Elisha’s servant did not provide what Naaman wanted, but rather what he needed.

The third servant is listed as the servant who joined Naaman on his journey. Actually it describes Naaman as having several servants, but one presumably served as the spokesperson for the rest. The servants exhibited the pastoral function of sustaining. Sustaining but with not much power. Naaman was a sick man… having leprosy. Skin diseases were a public shame… not just in Israel but throughout the world and throughout history. Such skin diseases were contagious, and the shame, the stigma, associated with such visible illness are also contagious. Shame is always contagious. But the servants traveled with him in his illness and shame through Israel— enemy territory. They even called him “Father,” a term of both honor and affection. They sustained him. But they did not sustain with power… they were simply servants with very little influence or strength.

Those who are hurting, struggling, shamed, need our presence… a ministry of presence. We walk with them, sustaining them and encouraging them to keep progressing. But when things get too difficult and they refuse to go on— we don’t carry them… we can’t. We stop and remain with them until they move forward. (For those who are familiar with the Christian poem, Footprints, I feel it is a bit of questionable imagery. I believe Christ is best understood as one who does not carry us in difficult times, but remains with us where we are.) Certainly that is what we can do. We don’t have the power to carry them. We can barely carry ourselves. That is not exciting. We have a temptation here as well. Our temptation is to “Be the Hero.” To be the Savior… to be the Messiah. But Jesus is the Savior… they don’t need you to be a second one. They need your presence. Chaplains in the olden days had two different roles. One roles was mobile and one was stationary. Some chaplains would travel with military forces or other trading groups to be a constant presence with the group. Others lived along traderoutes or other major roadways. In that setting, they were a stationary presence for those to be cared for as they passed through. Both are forms of presence. Sometimes your role is to be a mentor for someone… a supportive companion and accountability partner. Sometimes, you are the one to show temporary presence to people who need support is that pass through where you are.

In the story, Naaman had servants who traveled with him to care for him wherever he went. They not only sustained, but they also guided. In this case they practiced eductive guidance. Remember eductive guidance is where one guides by helping to draw out what the person already knows. Namaan was ranting about how he had been insulted and told to do some stupid silly thing to be healed. His servants said, My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” Naaman was willing to give a king’s fortune to be healed. He was prepared to walk through fire or do most any extreme thing to be healed. He already showed this by traveling into enemy territory as a military general without his army risking his own life to be healed. Naaman already knew that he would do most anything… even something seemingly stupid or silly to be healed. He just needed a bit of help to remember this.

In Pastoral Care, the Cure of Souls, there are many temptations. When I came here back in 2004, I was told that people who took CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, were often prideful about it … acting like they were better ministers or seminarians than those who had not taken it. Was this bit of gossip true? I don’t know. As Paul might say, “May it Not Be So” or in another translation, “Horrors No.” But maybe the perception was correct. There is the temptation to be the Clever One, to be the Expert, to be the Hero.

But… We are NOT called to be Clever, but rather to be a Guide with little knowledge, practicing the Ministry of Silence.

WE are NOT called to be the Expert, but rather Be a Healer without much skill, practicing the Ministry of Mediation

We are NOT called to play the Hero, but rather to Be a Sustainer without much power, practicing the Ministry of Presence.

My hope is that each of you will seek to develop the ministries of silence, mediation, and presence. My desire is that the people you provide care for will not see you as clever, as and expert, or as a hero. My prayer is that you will embrace a life-long ministry of care for others where you will be seen as having little knowledge, little skill, and little power.

Meriting Dialogue. Kärkkäinen Quote

““Dialogue has to be about the question of truth, evenImage result for veli karkkainen if no agreement about the truth can be reached. For consensus is not the goal of the dialogue. . . . If two people say the same thing, one of them is superfluous. In the interfaith dialogue which has to do with what is of vital and absolute concern to men and women—with the things in which they place the whole trust of their hearts—the way is already part of the goal.” Moltmann rightly says that only those people are capable of dialogue—“merit dialogue,” as he puts it—who “have arrived at a firm standpoint in their own religion, and who enter into dialogue with the resulting self-confidence.” Thus, Moltmann continues, “it is only if we are at home in our own religion that we shall be able to encounter the religion of someone else. The person who falls victim to the relativism of the multicultural society may be capable of dialogue, but that person does not merit dialogue.””

     –by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, in “Christ and Reconciliation,” p. 28.  Quoting Jurgen Moltmann in “Experiences in Theology”

 

 

 

Truth and Dialogue– Bringing Them Together

David Hesselgrave, in his book “Communicating Christ Cross-culturally,” has an interesting figure in Chapter 9 called “The Contextualization Continuum.”

Here is a version of it.

Hesselgrave Chapter 9

I find the figure interesting in some ways, and even useful. However, there are some aspects of it I disagree with.

1.  One part of the figure I disagreed with so strongly that I removed it from the figure here. Associated with “Orthodoxy” is something called “Apostolic Contextualization.” Associated with “Neo-Orthodoxy” and “Neo-Liberalism” is something called “Prophetic Contextualization.” Associated with “Liberalism” is “Syncretistic Contextualization.” I somewhat disagree with the last one, “Syncretistic Contextualization,” but to me the terms Apostolic and Prophetic Contextualizations are used randomly. I can see no linke between the terms and the concepts. In fact, if I did feel like I had to use the terms, I would probably switch Apostolic and Prophetic. The NT Apostles (I am thinking primarily of Paul, Barnabas, Peter and John) actively promoted and/or applied the idea that Eternal truths in Scripture are laden with cultural/temporal truths. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter recognized that Greeks do not/should not embrace Jewish culture to be Christian. John, did considerable work, especially in the Gospel of John, to express Christian teachings in with Greek concepts. To me that effort is more than simply a translation process.  Since OT Prophets, at least, generally deemphasize such an openness to other cultures, it seems like Apostolic Contextualization comes closest to relating to Neo-Orthodoxy and Prophetic to Orthodoxy (at least as the figure presents them).

2.  There is no way that one should describe the Method associated with Liberalism as Dialogic. Dialogue in no way expresses an opinion about truth. Perhaps the term was chosen because of the novel tendency of Evangelicals back in 1978 (when Hesselgrave’s book was written) to understand dialogue in line with John Hick and Raimon Panikkar. Their understanding of dialogue could arguably be seen as linked to a Liberal or Pluralistic perspective. On the other hand, perhaps the terms were chosen to be clever. Aliteration sounds nice (Didactic, Dialectic, Dialogic) even when it (perhaps) misinforms.

3.  The figure could be interpreted to mean that the more supra-cultural one interprets the Bible, the more orthodox one is. In my understanding, Orthodoxy has always questioned normalizing (blessing) one’s own culture, as well as any particular Biblical culture. As such, there should be a category further to the left on the figure for Schismatic or perhaps Particularistic groups.

This figure reminds me of the figure I use for dialogue:

Dialogue spectrum

One can bring these two figures together– relating Strategies of Contextualization and Strategies of Dialogue.

Strategies

Interpretation: 

The red line shows the theoretical spectrum of theology from more conservative to more liberal. The Green region would be the more normative strategies associated with the theological perspective. The Yellow region would be less normative, and Orange quite unlikely.  Of course, the redline as shown doesn’t truly exist. The range of theological perspectives do not fit comfortably onto  a single thin line.

The more conservative theologically, the more likely that the contextualization strategy is Didactic (focusing on how to translate the Bible and Christian teachings into the language and thought patterns of a target people). There is also a greater likelihood to utilize an Apologetic strategy of dialogue, emphasizing argument as a way to share the Christian message.

Of course, that is not always true. For example, many Conservatives may choose a Clarification strategy for Dialogue believing that it could be a more successful strategy. It would, however, be quite unlikely for Conservatives to utilize a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue or a “Dialogic” strategy for Contextualization since both tend to minimize the uniqueness of Christian revelation.

At the other end, being more theologically liberal, a “Dialogic” strategy of Contextualization and a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue would be more likely because of the tendency not to see Christian revelation as unique. That, however, is not automatic.

For me, I strongly support a Clarification strategy for Dialogue. For Contextualization, since I tend towards a “Counter-cultural approach” of contextualization, on this chart I suppose it is in the area close to where Didactic and Dialectic meet. That means I am not on the Red Line, but still in the Green Zone.

 

 

Solomon’s 2nd Dream (a Speculative Story)

In Gibeon Solomon had his first dream. As he slept, God appeaed to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon replied, “… Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”Image result for wisdom and suffering

God was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. He replied, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, not have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart.” God also promised him riches and honor. Then God added, “And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”

Solomon rapidly grew in wisdom, not only gaining understanding of governance,  but also the ability to discern the true nature of matters that he had to deal with. And he was successful— wildly successful.   But in his personal reflections, he was confused. God granted wisdom, and he promised future wealth and honor. However, he did not promise a long life, but only said that Solomon would have this if he was obedient to God. But if one was wise, one would know that the obeying God is the key wisdom. To disobey God is to be the fool.  Could one be wise and a fool at the same time?

And Solomon dwelt on this matter a long time. One day, many years into his reign he was sitting in his palace, the only building in all the land more opulent than the Great Temple of Yahweh, he felt that he now understood the matter. He called out to God… but God did not answer. Many days he called out to God, but with no response. One night, however, close to giving up God returned to him in a dream.

God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon responded, “O Lord my God. Your humble servant has served as king over Your people. You granted me wisdom, and I have sought to lead with wisdom and discernment. Yet I find failings in me. I believe I know what I should do for the good of the people, but far too often I find that what I do is guided more by what will give me pleasure, wealth, and honor. But then I recalled when you came to me the first time that obedience to your commands is not an automatic result of wisdom. A wise man can still disobey you, and thus makes himself the fool. So as Your humble servant, I ask for strength of character, a disciplined heart and mind, to live and act wisely, not just be wise.”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon asked for this. He replied, “You have asked for something great… much greater than wisdom. It is also a much more difficult thing. A man’s character is like a boat— it moves easily as the current and the wind drive it. But to move against the wind and the water takes great labor”

God continued. “I do not gift character any more than do I make a waterfall flow upward. But if you truly desire good character, this is what I will do. I will give you suffering. I will take away what gives you pleasure, and what I leave you will not bring you satisfaction. I will give you dishonor, and grant your honor to fools.  I will scatter your wealth to those who did not earn it. It is a difficult path, and very few choose it voluntarily, but it is out of the seeds of suffering that discipline can slowly grow, and out of this growth, character  may bear fruit. Think on this.”

Solomon awoke, and meditated on his dream for many days, each day becoming more disconsolate. Finally, he called his scribe and began to speak,

“With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

 

 

 

 

Learning a New Term: “Symbolic Interactionism”

I have recently begun reading the book Participant Observation by James Spradley. I suppose I should have read it years ago… but better late than never. In Chapter One he references Herbert Blumer (1969) and his work Symbolic Interactionism. Three premises of this theory are (in my own wording)

  1.  People act towards objects  (nouns of any type) based on the meaning these things are given (by us).

  2. These meanings do not come from these objects but are assigned to things based on the social interaction people have with their peers.

  3. Meanings are not static, but can modify as people interact with the objects they encounter.

I have seen this as I have been reading FB posts recently. Often I have wondered if I should stop reading them.  I have a melancholic temperament, and a lot of the social media of Christians is quite depressing. However, maybe instead of complaining at the freaky things people share on FB, I should embrace my involvement in terms of Partcipant Observation.

Recently, I was reading a thread on FB that was coming up with stronger and stronger language to speak against former US President Obama, and former presidential candidate H. Clinton. Eventually one conversant described Obama as the Antichrist and Clinton as the “Whore of Babylon.” I hope I don’t need to say that this is a huge abuse of Scripture and Scriptural language, Despite this, the person got quite a few “Likes” for the post. Since most all of the conversants in the thread would consider themselves Christians, and even use the label “Bible-believing,”  why would they say or like a statement that was, arguably, a heretical interpretation of Scripture (from a section of the Bible that appears to curse those who do just such abuses to the Word)?

Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” While this is commonly applied to arguments, you will notice that Godwin’s Law doesn’t actually specify argument. When a bunch of people get together who share the same beliefs, there is often a tendency to play one-upmanship with each other making more and more radical statements.

For some Christians, Hitler (or other authoritarian abusers and killers) does not describe consummate evil. Rather, Satan, or demons, or the Antichrist would be the substitute for Hitler. The use of the term “whore of Babylon” is clever in that it sexualizes the insult— as seems to be always the temptation when men (or women) want to denigrate a woman. Of course, the “whore of Babylon” is a system and not a person (as, probably, is the Antichrist) but that is not the point. Both terms are symbols. Image result for the devil

For the FB discussion… Obama and Clinton represent a challenge to power— legal power, political power, social power. As such, they are seen as a threat to some people. Threats gradually lead towards demonization (or Hitlerization). In the case of Obama and Clinton, it is not so much who they are (they don’t seem to me to be worthy of much applause or castigation— they are just people who are involved in US politics). Rather, for those who see Obama or Clinton as threats to power, they symbolize something bigger.  When people attack them, they are attacking what they symbolize.

Of course, one does not have to be in a position of power to fall into this trap (and it IS a trap). Over here, the President of the Philippines occasionally states things that insult or attack the Roman Catholic Church— the largest religious group in the country. Many Evangelicals have applauded this. Why?  Again, the Catholic church has considerable power in the country, and as such, there is the temptation to see them as the enemy. (Of course, if they actually were the enemy, then we would have to embrace the teachings of Jesus and love them, not applaud attacks on them.)

But going back to the three premises of Symbolic Interactionism, none of this is inevitable. We connect to things (and people and concepts) based on the meanings we give them. As such, meanings are flexible… they can change. Today, I was in seminary chapel, and the speaker noted how wrong it was for Protestant Christians to applaud the attacks on our Catholic brothers and sisters. We are not without our faults so why express joy when their faults are exposed? And when politicians use religion to divide (and conquer), why do we yield to the temptation of predictability (standing by “our guys” uncritically, and attacking “their guys” uncritically). In the case of the speaker in chapel, he was seeking to work on the 2nd premise of symbolic interactionism. He was seeking to influence his peers so that the Catholic church is no longer given the label of “the enemy” by seminarians. I would like to think that he words will have influence.

Additionally, interacting with people different from ourselves can also help. This is the third premise. I find it valuable to talk to people of other faiths, other denominations, other theological persuasions, other races, and other political and national affiliations. Often, I find there is a lot of common ground. Even when we still disagree strongly on things, the temptation to stereotype them or “Hitlerize” them goes away. Rather, they are simply (in my opinion) “wrong.” More commonly, they are a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad, admirable, and problematic. I find that picking up news from many sources reduces my tendency to embrace certain things as true and other things as fake based on how I feel about a certain subject.

While Symbolic Interactionism is a moutful to say (or type, I suppose), it expresses something of value for Christians.

  • We need to recognize the temptation to objectify— see people as symbols or objects, rather than real people. In fact, we do it automatically, but we can at least be aware of this.
  • We need to recognize our temptation to confuse our ethics and our aesthetics. We tend to think something is right and good, or dispicable and awful based on group feelings and stereotypical generalizations than on what what is truth. We “bless” our beliefs with Scripture verses, rather than drawing our beliefs from the (uncomfortable) whole of Scripture.
  • We can grow as people by interacting positively with those who are unlike us. And if we go in willing to grow and learn, the others might as well,.

And the last is perhaps the most important.

  • We can break Godwin’s Law cycle of devolving discussions by challenging the base instincts of our peers— helping them seek out God’s perspective rather than Groupthink.

In the case of the FB thread I was describing earlier, perhaps it would have only taken one person to jump in and note that both Obama and Clinton (regardless of whatever flaws they may have) are God’s creations, worthy of love and concern— and appear to sincerely seek to live out their political life in line with the ethics that their particular Christian denominations hold. As such, they are worthy of a certain amount of admiration even if one does not ultimately agree with them on some issues. I am not sure everyone would suddenly embrace, but perhaps that person could at least have short-circuited the road to the Antichrist and Whore of Babylon.