Belief versus Doubt versus Disbelief II

Spaulding and Wilkeson Quad at SUNY Buffalo
Spaulding and Wilkeson Quad at SUNY Buffalo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An article in the New Statesman, “The Social Cell” by Daniel Dennett (April 13, 2012) is an interesting work on the effects of information on some social systems. One of these is religion. The writer believes that the free flow of information challenges religion (most certainly) and will likely lead to its extinction (most “doubt”-ful). To me, the thesis seems a bit simplistic, ignoring the fact that information does not compel. Faith is needed in steering toward both belief or disbelief. Modern Physics may lead one person to believe that God is unnecessary… a “god in the gaps” until the gaps close. Another person may see the wondrous complexity and beauty of the Universe as viewed through the lens of modern physics and gain greater conviction of the power and wisdom of the Creator. Likewise, as Dennett noted, religion seems to develop spontaneously, so the death of religion seems unlikely, because out of death it springs anew in different forms.

But that is not the interesting part of the article. Of greater interest is the section regarding unbelieving clergy. These are people who started out as firm and committed believers. However, as they went to seminary, and as they had access to information and theories of others, doubt drifted towards unbelief. At some time, they drifted fully into disbelief, but did not lose their religion. Their ties (and occupation) within the religious community were too strong. They teach and preach a belief that they lack.

Why does this happen. Is it because information exists that would compel disbelief? No. Neither side has completely compelling information or logic. I suppose here are a few components that cause problems for seminarians.

1.  Upbringing that focuses on unchallenged belief. Many seminarians are brought up in a sub-culture of sorts. This sub-culture encourages belief without acknowledging the healthy role of doubt in this.

2.  They are uprooted into a broader skeptical culture, or a high culture of unbelief. Raised in an sub-culture that praises faith and sees doubt as sinful (or worse) individuals often do well until they begin to interact in other cultural settings.  Unprepared for this skeptical culture shock/disorientation, these people feel they must either deny doubt or deny belief.

3.  Having been taught that doubt is the opposite of faith, the individual finds the first feelings of doubt as a scary thing. At first the doubt is denied. But if the doubt gets to a point where it cannot be denied, there may be a feeling that they already are an unbeliever. If you think about it, there is a bit of dark humor to this. Because the individual begins to doubt one part of their doctrine (salvation, God, supernatural, whatever), a different part of their own doctrine (doubt is sin and the opposite of faith) is left unchallenged by doubt to tear down their own belief.

I remember being in college. I attended a fairly conservative Christian college (Cedarville University). While I did disagree with some things they said, it did help me to mature in a belief-friendly environment that was still academic and challenging. I then transferred to a very secular university for my Junior and Senior years. I noticed that there was a strong attempt to challenge and change the belief systems of students at SUNY at Buffalo (No, I have not found all secular schools to be this way). However, by the time I got there as a 20 year old, I was prepared to see the weaknesses and strengths of both my own beliefs and those that were seeking to challenge those beliefs. I was mature enough to know that my doubts could equally drive me in either direction. I felt sorry for the freshman, right out of High School dumped into such an environment, ill-prepared (commonly) to doubt and evaluate the “expert opinions” of those in charge.

There seems to be several fairly obvious things that could help nurture a young believer (or even a not-so-young believer).

1. Churches and families should not be so quick to squelch or ignore issues of doubt and faith. A church should be a safe place for both belief and doubt. Doubters of all types should always be welcome without fear of abuse.

2. Young believers need to be nurtured in their faith… but not by people who are sort of “Name it and claim it” or “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” These people may have their positive qualities (as well as negative) but they do not position the young believer well for the culture shock of faith in the Modernist or Post-Modernist world.

3.  Faith, doubt, and belief are important parts of seminary training. To teach the JEDP Theory of Pentateuch development as fact (a pretty doubtful theory, do be honest) will challenge faith. But even if one believes it to be fact, one should never teach it without considering how information would be integrated into the student’s faith structure.  Again, faith and doubt should be dealt with freely and honestly (not an easy thing in seminary).

4.  Ideally, seminary students should not be young (physically or spiritually). Preferably, students should already have gone through a trial of faith. That could either be a struggle that takes one from unbelief to belief, or one that challenges the faith that was there, and was taken through the fire.

Belief that is unchallenged, unquestioned, flabby… will not survive long in a culture that promotes unbelief or at least a biased skepticism.

Belief versus Doubt versus Disbelief I

People always like to contrast Faith and Doubt. I think that this is in error. I believe (and I am not alone in this assessment) that faith is empowered by doubt. Doubt is simply honesty… and honesty is not bad. We are limited in knowledge (we don’t know everything). We are  limited in time and space (we have not experienced and cannot experience everything). We are limited in wisdom (we lack the software to unerringly process what knowledge and experience we do have). We should doubt. Not to doubt is simply self-delusion, self-denial, or hubris.

If doubt is not bad in itself… perhaps even unavoidable… what is the result? In truth, the result is our choice… to some extent.

Doubt can empower belief. Is it even accurate to say that one has belief if one does not doubt (or if one is blind to the doubt)? Belief is volitional, doubt is cognitive. Personal experience, analytic statements, and syllogistic /deductive logic can only take one so far. As Lewis Carroll noted via Achilles and his friend, the Tortoise, no logic can ever be truly compelling. Such an attempt would result into an infinite number of logical steps. At some point in time one has to step back and say that they find the evidence they have to be compelling. This is faith. Obviously, pretty much everything in life requires faith of one sort or another. Belief requires faith that is empowered by doubt.

However, doubt can also empower disbelief. The process is not essentially different. One may be faced with the same evidence, the same concerns, the same experiences, the same logic. However, in the end, one finds the counter-argument to be compelling. This is still faith, but faith that leads to disbelief.

In missions, one should not seek to squelch doubt. Rather one should work with people to come to terms with their doubt. In my case, my father helped me process my doubt. My father was the head deacon of our church. Even though we came from a very conservative church, my father did not mind questions that evidenced doubt, or challenged set thoughts. My dad would let me come to my own conclusions (I would anyway) but would do his best to give his own opinion, thoughtfully, and fairly. My dad was also a very smart man. Years ago, when people talk about something being easy, they might say “It’s not rocket science.” My dad actually was a rocket scientist, along with mechanical test engineer, and ‘human computer’ (back before electronic computers were available). This was helpful. Because when I went to High School and some of the teachers challenged my beliefs, I remembered my dad. He was the president of the school board, so why should I be bothered by teachers. When I was in college and in the Navy, I was also challenged by others, encouraging me to have my doubts be channeled towards unbelief. Again, my father helped me direct my doubts towards belief.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

Controntation in Relationships

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_11775576″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3/confrontation-in-relationships&#8221; title=”Confrontation in relationships” target=”_blank”>Confrontation in relationships</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/thecroaker/death-by-powerpoint&#8221; target=”_blank”>PowerPoint</a> from <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3&#8243; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>

Reflections

I participated in an event recently called The Elephant Room. It was an incredible time of learning and stretching of my faith. The format is as follows…

The Elephant Room features blunt conversations between seven influential pastors who take differing approaches to ministry. No keynotes. No canned messages. These are “the conversations you never thought you’d hear.” All conversations are moderated by James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel and Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church ~ From theelephantroom.com

As a young pastor I get into lots of conversations with other younger pastors and youth pastors who talk about the idea of ‘tribes’ and what ‘tribe’ I belong to. I have to confess I read a lot of books, blogs, posts and articles from lots and lots of people and organizations. Not all are christian or of religious nature but things I read none the less. I watch a lot of…

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“Websterian” Theology and the “Spirit”

A couple of years ago, I was editing a journal for our organization here: “Bukal Life Journal.”. One article that I am going through right now is a reprint (most articles are original submissions, but we really wanted to print this one and we were happily given the permission) of one by Dr. Raymond J. Lawrence, the General Secretary of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. The article is  titled “The Vicissitudes of Spirituality.” The article points out how the term “spirit” has been changed over centuries to the point that it has little to do with the original or Biblical concept. He pointed out that the root terms “ruah” (Hebrew), “pneuma” (Greek), and “spiritus” (Latin) had little to nothing to do with incorporeality (or the opposite of matter/flesh). That is not to say that spirit never has to do with incorporeality— for example Jesus noting that in His resurrected state He is not a spirit in that he has flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). Words have more than one meaning and so one must look at the context. We certainly don’t want to fall into the error of Jehovah’s Witnesses who tend to interpret “pneuma” and “ruah” only one way, ignoring its context.

In the Bible, spirit is often used as a metaphor contrasting the metaphor of “the flesh.”

Living in the Spirit (living in God’s Will) versus Living in the Flesh (Living against God’s Will)

As such it is similar to the classic early church contrast of “walking in the light” and “walking in darkness.” Here, when one focuses on the concrete side it sounds like one has the choice between living corporeally or living uncorporeally.  However, one has to interpret based on the abstract quality that utilizes the metaphor rather than the concrete object it connects to.

This issue goes back to something I jokingly call “Websterian” Theology. That is, we take a principle, give it a label, then (illogically) go to the dictionary (such as “Webster’s” Dictionary) to give meaning to that label.  For example, the Bible gives a description of the powerfulness of God that theologians have often labelled as His “omnipotence.” Then people interpret omnipotence as being “able to do all things.” One might argue that being able to do all things is a reasonable assumption of the term omnipotence. However, our understanding of God is based on the Bible, not on a dictionary. The Bible certainly never says that God can do all things. God says He does not lie, for example. Is God UNABLE to lie? Don’t know. But it is something God has said that He does not do, so in practice, He can’t. It is hardly surprising that my former Mormon roommate pulled the classic question “If God can do all things, can He create a rock too big for Him to lift?” The question is a tough one if one is bound by Websterian Theology. Not so tough if one is guided by God’s Word. (If God is not limited by power, as the Bible seems to indicate, presumably He could not create a rock too big to lift (using here the Mormon conception of a corporal god, of course) since to be able to do so would demonstrate a limitation of power.)

“Spirit” get’s hit hard in the area of Websterian Theology, as is using Webster’s Dictionary. Take the definition #1 from a major dictionary (actually using in this case “The World Book Dictionary”, 1970). It says that “spirit” is “the immaterial part of man; soul.” This definition is the preferred definition by most Christians. Some Christians would prefer to focus on definition #3 “a supernatural being, such as a deity, fairy, elf, ghost, etc.” Jehovah’s Witnesses (a non-Christian religion) strongly attack these views and argue that the term “spirit” should simply mean “breath” or “wind” since the Hebrew and Greek words (ruah and pneuma, respectively) mean “breath” or “wind.” Of course, the JWs end up failing in the same way as many Christians by trying to interpret a Biblical passage using a dictionary. The terms ruah and pneuma are used in numerous ways in the Bible… many of which would be nonsensical if one was forced to translate it only as breath or as wind. The use of these terms in the Bible commonly come closer (generally) to definition #6, “courage, vigor, and liveliness.” The idea of a horse being “spirited,” meaning empowered, alive, invigorated, really suggests the idea quite well from a historic understanding. Being full of spirit or high spirited suggests full of life, full of power, full of meaningfulness.

websterDoes this matter? Sometimes, sometimes not. Looking at the figure above. The breakdown is in the lower right arrow where the dictionary interpretation is used in the process towards Biblical Interpretation. Of course, interpreting the Bible through theological filters is always risky, but far more so when the use of a theological label is disconnected from its derivation. Let me suggest four quick examples where it matters.

A.  “Holy Spirit.” Because we focus on the incorporeality of the term “spirit” (to say nothing of the term “Holy Ghost”) we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as being less… substantial… or less of a person… than other members of the Godhead. I recall descriptions of the Holy Spirit by Jon Arnot of the “Toronto Blessing” movement where the Holy Spirit was described as bouncing around the room and accidentally hitting the wrong person and more. I find it hard to believe that he would have used such language for God the Son, or God the Father (even the more general term “God” used such would probably be thought of as blasphemous). But because the term “Holy Spirit” sounds a lot (because of our internal dictionary… not the Bible) like “the Force” from the Star Wars series, it seems okay to interpret phenomena in a matter that is Biblically ridiculous. Perhaps the term “Creator Spiritus” helps us to embrace the metaphor connecting us to the third person of the Trinity better.

B.  Spirit in the sloppy term “spiritual.” People today are not particularly interested in God (in a specific or doctrinal sense), or religion, but they are interested in “spirituality.” We generally applaud spirituality and decry carnality. Certainly within the Pauline epistles there is a dualism set up between “the spirit” and “the flesh.” He was writing to Hellenized Christians so it was a useful analogy. However, Paul went on to clarify that the physical realm is not necessarily bad while not all “spirits” or “spiritualities” are good. But today, there is the temptation to suggest that being a “spiritual” person is, by definition, good.

At this point, I think bringing in a concept from Paul Tillich would be helpful. I can’t really describe myself as a fan of Tillich’s theological work… but I think he comes close to some good things in the area of the term “spirit.” He says that Spirit is best understood as the union of meaning and power. It is not simply power… it has purpose. It is not simply an idea… it has power behind it. Spirit, then, is neither good nor bad… it depends on the goodness (or badness) of its meaning. Lawrence uses the example of Nazism as a “spirituality” of meaning and power that was, and is, diabolical. Tillich goes on suggesting that the qualities of good spirit (or spirituality) is “love” and “justice.” He adds four more related qualities: (self) awareness, freedom (detached from objects and the law), relatedness (as opposed to isolation), and transcendence. Considering that the Bible describes “spirit” in both positive and negative ways supports the idea that (as Paul said) the spirits must be tested.

C.  Living “in the Spirit.” This is kind of like the previous one. However, some look at being in the Spirit as being happy, or positive, or singing, or enthusiastic (definition #7). It is judged by one’s emotional state. This seems to go back to old-time medicine where one’s emotional state was dictated by “humors” and “spirits”— fluids that flowed through the body. Humors were visible (blood, biles and such) while spirits were not visible. One may say that spirits here relate to one’s “spiritual state” rather than emotional, yet the characteristics of the state are essentially emotional in character. To draw from mathematics, “spirit” is not scalar, but vector. A scalar quality only has magnitude. A vector quality has both magnitude and direction. When we are living in the Spirit, or are led by the Spirit, this is not merely being joyful, or emotionally upbeat (drugs can accomplish that fairly well by themselves… for a time). Rather, we are empowered by God to live with a divine purpose and meaning. To say that we are baptized by the Spirit means that we (communally) have been empowered and given common purpose with all other believers in Christ.

D.  Spirituality as opposed to the Mind. Some think being led by the spirit means turning off one’s mind. The spirit is anti-intellectual. There is no good basis for this. Spirituality is only opposed to the mind if the mind is opposed to the purpose, plans, and meaning given by God. Being “in the spirit” is not an argument for doing foolish behavior.

So what does this all have to do with missions?  I would suggest that:

1.  Missionaries are to be led by the Spirit. This does not mean a turning off of our intellectual capacities and planning. This does not mean rejecting the “physical realm” and seeking a non-corporeal bliss. It means that we seek to live out our purpose both given and empowered by God.

2. Missionaries should not teach or model the idea that “spirituality” is in itself good. Spirit has direction and that direction can be good or bad. We must test the spirits. Evidence of power does not demonstrate divine spirituality either. Again, evil can have power. What is the underlying meaning and purpose (direction) of that power? Superficial or short-term benefit for a few also does not demonstrate the goodness. <The German people thought of Nazism as good because it was powerful and (temporarily) brought improvement to some of their lives. Yet it failed miserably in love and justice.>

Anyway, something to think about.

God as a Big Purple Dinosaur

Barney's Best Manners; this was one of the Bar...
Barney's Best Manners; this was one of the Barney & Friends videos to have never aired on TV. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in High School and College, there was Barney the Dinosaur. Big purple plush costume and a silly voice. Little children loved Barney. But I was not a little child. I was like many others who found the silly songs and overacting annoying. “I Love You… You Love Me… We’re a Happy Family. With a Great Big Hug and a Kiss From Me to You. Won’t You Say You Love… Me… Too!” Nauseating. In college, it was cool to speak ill of Barney. Perhaps it was a way of showing one was “grown-up.” Perhaps it was a bit of unbridled cynicism.

I recall reading a story of some teenagers who “beat up Barney.” Barney the Dinosaur and crew went to a mall show or something, and some kids starting punching and kicking Barney (or the actor in the costume of Barney). I did not approve of that behavior. It is not right. Yet, there was still a side of me that saw the humor in it.

But a few years later something changed. I was a father with three little kids. I did not want them to watch the normal trash on TV, so I put on Barney at times because I figured it was harmless. But over time, my attitude changed about Barney. You see, Barney loved my children (he says so in the song). My children loved Barney. Barney also taught them good things, helping them to be better kids.

My attitude changed as I grew up. There are three basic stages: childhood, adolescent, and adult. I am a bit embarrassed about my adolescence where I was angry at something that does not even exist (in the truest sense). However, that period probably did help me come to a healthier understanding.

One can relate this to our attitude with God as well.

Stage 1. Childhood. Unquestioning acceptance of God’s reality and affection.

Stage 2. Adolescent. Doubt, anger, and cynicism about the whole God thing. The existence of God is now doubted, and the idea that one has possibly been duped leads to unfocused frustration and hostility aimed at God (who may not exist) and believers (who definitely exist… many seemingly without such doubts).

Stage 3. Adulthood. There is still doubt, but recognize that God as a symbol may be useful (at least for the kids). Additionally, God could actually exist and that possibility provides some level of hope and comfort.

Which stage is best? I suppose the best is based on whether God truly exists or not. If He does not exist, then I suppose Stage 3 is best. One should go through the stages 1, then 2, and finally 3. This one recognizes that God as a norming standard of “goodness” is beneficial.

On the other hand, if God truly exists, then Stage 1 is best. Belief and trust.

One can understand why Jesus said that one must come to God as a child. Children enter faith in God directly in Stage 1. For adults, typically we transition from Stage 3 (nominal faith and unfocused hope) to Stage 2 (disorientation and struggle) before arriving at faith in God (Stage 1). Often the greater the struggle (Stage 2) the greater the ultimate faith. Many of the greatest heroes of faith (St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis for example) had great struggles in Stage 2.

God is NOT a big purple dinosaur. Barney does not exist in the truest sense of the word. He is more of a symbol… a symbol of goodness and love. That’s fine and has its place. However, I believe that God is real and one job of ours is to help people to process from Stage 3 to Stage 1.

I believe that stage 2 is not a healthy place to dwell, but is a healthy place to work through. We should not be too quick to get people to jump immediately to Stage 1 faith. There is value in the struggle.

Great article on a great book.

Churchmouse Campanologist

This post is not for those of a sensitive disposition.

For Christians recovering from toxic churches, Ronald M Enroth’s 1992 book Churches that Abuse is recommended reading.

The book has been mentioned on many church abuse recovery sites and is available in its entirety online for free. It’s well worth a read, even for those who belong to sound, doctrinal congregations. It will confirm certain stereotypes but smash a few others.

What follows are a few excerpts, highlights mine.

Background to the book

… Despite the defensive protestations of authoritarian leaders that ex-members of their churches lie, distort the facts, and are “accusers of the brethren,” there is abundant evidence that a serious problem of abuse exists in the Christian community …

It is my hope that this book will provide a context for understanding. If we have basic information about a subject, we can sometimes take preventative action

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Why We Don’t Contextualize Our Faith?

Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marbl...
Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are some thoughts. It is not necessarily exhaustive.

  1. Fear of Syncretism and Heresy. It is clear in the Bible that the Christian faith needs to be contextualized. Within the New Testament World, this meant several worlds… Jewish World, Greco-Roman World, and Folk-Pagan World (if not more). Contextualization has its limits. The early disciples worked within the context of Judaism, yet rejected sacrifices and the temple system. Paul and Barnabbas used healing as a manner of getting the attention of local folk-pagans, yet rejected the titles of Zeus and Hermes. Paul, particularly, worked in helping Greeks express their faith without becoming Jews, but Gnostic/docetic syncretism was rejected.

Here in the Philippines, syncretism is very common. That very condition has added to the view of many that one should actively avoid contextualization. However, there is a flaw in this. Some of the more successful groups that have drifted from orthodoxy were founded by individuals who were trained in a non-contextualized manner. Felix Manalo and Apollo Quiboloy were trained up in American-style Protestantism (of one form or another). Both of them created new religions despite being grounded in an “orthodoxy” of sorts. Poor or no contextualization does not prevent syncretism or heresy. As Paul Hiebert would suggest, it might even increase it. Jackson Wu has noted that non-contextualization is likely to lead to syncretism as is over-contetualization.

  1. Religious Monoculturalism. Many missionaries and religious leaders are not used to the idea that one should separate their own culture from religious culture. The music of their own church is the music of God. The religious language, theology, and style of their own church are the language, theology and style of God. A study of Church music through history shows that new styles are rejected by the old. However, old styles are rejected by the new, and newer styles are also rejected by the new.

    In the Philippines we see this. Churches tend to mimic (often rather poorly) the styles, structures, and theologies of the USA, South Korea, or Singapore. The fact that the Philippines is distinctly unlike any of these three countries is often lost on missionaries.

  2. Anticontextual Theology. Beyond simply being afraid of contextualization or being blind to its need, some theology seeks to reject contextualization from the start. Creedalism locks in a theological perspective from a contextual past and refuses to review it in a new cultural setting. Similar to this is Traditionalism that provides a theological justification for inertia. Anti-paganism has been popular in recent years at least as an argument against certain practices. The Jehovah’s Witness religion has argued against Christmas and Birthdays, for example, because they have “pagan roots.” Other groups have jumped on board. However, to remove paganism from Christianity’s roots removes our history. One would actually be hard-pressed to find anything in Judaism or Christianity (or any other major religion) that lacks precursors in paganism. And if one did discover some minor aspect of Christianity that has no connection (chronologically or otherwise) with paganism (Stained glass? Pews? Religious radio? ) that does not make it right or even better than other practices with a more “tarnished” pedigree. Anti-pagan arguments are basically a rejection of contextualization and the idea that God can redeem culture. Related to this is the perspective described by Richard Neibuhr as “Christ against Culture.” Following Christ means rejecting culture. However, since it is impossible for a community to exist without culture (by definition) this view means accepting some other culture that has been “blessed” by others… a return to traditionalism.
  1. Cultural Resistance to Change. The power of culture is habit. Habits are hard to break on an individual basis. Cultures, however, tend to reinforce themselves… justifying the habits with taboos, social norms, and laws. Culture and religion are linked, and religion creates its own culture, with the same tendency towards communal habits reinforced by taboos, norms, and regulations. Contextualization means a change in religious culture. Because the tendency of culture to perpetuate itself, this is difficult, even if the people are theoretically willing.
  1. Inertia. Drawing back to the habit issue, habits are hard to break, even on an individual level. It is easier just to do what has been done before. Innovation is difficult, draining, and risky.
  1. Modeling. We tend to learn by watching others. Therefore, when Christianity develops in a new country, new Christians look to old Christians as the model for how to think and behave. That tends to reduce contextualization.

It is hardly surprising that contextualization of theology is not done or not done well. In fact some resistance to change is good. We are all humans sharing a common history. As Christians we are also guided by God’s revelation. Our humanity, history, and revelation should be “strange attractors” that provide a semblance of order to our chaotic lives.

I recently read a quote attacking tradition. That is equally foolish. Tradition at least shows something that has worked at one time and has become part of our foundational experience and history. That places it on a sounder foundation than something that is untested.

Like most things in life, balance is needed.

In Praise of Little Faith

So I saw the following quote once or twice,

Mustard Seed

Little faith says, God can do it.” Big faith says, “God will do it.” But great faith says, It is done, for nothing is impossible with God.” What should my response be?

Being a navy officer in the past, as well as a mechanical design engineer, does not necessarily help one develop positive social skills. My roles in missions (teaching seminary classes and seminars, and acting as an NGO administrator) don’t help that much either. They both tempt one to pontificate and be bossy.

I restrained myself from comment recognizing that the quote is in some way pleasant and “affirming.” I did not want to sound like a military officer/ engineer/ professor/ administrator. However, I have been seeing the quote more and more. I have thought that perhaps some constructive comment is appropriate and give appropriate praise to “Little Faith.” Okay, here are my issues.

  1. “Nothing is impossible with God.” Yes, this is a grumpy complaint. I realize that. However, if this one is straightened out, the bigger issue begins to clean itself up. No one reading the Bible can come to the conclusion that nothing is impossible with God. We would like to say that God cannot sin, or lie. Orthodox theology (as drawn from Scripture) would add that God is not limited in anything that is limited by power. Some would add that “God cannot fail” but by this they mean that “God cannot fail in something He has chosen to succeed in.” For example if I say that I choose that it not rain today, and it rains, I could say that “God failed to keep it from raining” but in truth the failure was on my part because if God had chosen to keep it from raining, it would not rain. That’s the point. The quote above would become more accurate if one says “Nothing is impossible if God wills it so.”
  2. If the third part of the quote is only true if constrained by God’s will, it is even more true if we go to the second section. “Big faith says ‘God will do it!’” It is clear in the Bible that God does not always do things. To say that He will because we have “big faith” begs the question of what our faith is “big” in. After all, Jesus conformed His will to that of the Father. Paul accepted God’s will not to do what he wanted on more than one occasion. James points out the importance of recognizing that God’s will is independent of our own and above our own. Statements regarding the power of prayer are constrained to God’s will. For example “Whatever you ask in My name” means that what we ask is limited to His will. “In My name” is a term of ambassadorship. We are doing what we are told as ambassadors of Christ, not telling Christ what to do. Saying “God will do it” means we know exactly what God’s specific will is. Since we commonly don’t know God’s specific will in a specific time and circumstance, the “Big faith” described in this quote appears to be “Big faith in myself.” That is not Christian faith.
  3. The first part of the quote appears to be the most solid. Those with little faith say “God can do it.” It recognizes God’s ability without presuming God’s will. I guess, I would prefer to modify the quote here a bit still. “Little faith says, “God can do it, and I will trust Him!”

To me, that is Christian faith. Trusting God means trusting Him more than we trust ourselves.

My prayer for each of you is that you have “Little Faith!”

The Unethical Church, Part III

Justice Tempered by Mercy - Statue located in ...
Justice Tempered by Mercy - Statue located in the Courtyard of the Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, up to this point I have felt quite comfortable with what I have written and felt that I have written it, if not well, at least saying what and how I want it said. Summarizing those points,

1.  I don’t believe Christian ethics should be viewed as deontological (rule based) or teleological (result-based) [or contextual (culturally appropropriate) either]. Rather, I see Christian ethics as the intersection of deontological and teleological (with a respectful notto contextual). Such an intersection effectively becomes a synthesis and, essentially, something unlike either one before.

2.  I believe that the guiding principles of Christian ethics centers on God’s will. This makes it primarily “absolutist” although there are aspects of non-absolutist views that are relevant and useful. I do believe that there is adequate reason to believe that genuine conflicts in the guidelines we are to live by. In such a case we should seek the greater good (applying the higher rule over the lesser rule). If one chooses to go the opposite way and say that one should seek the lesser evil… I believe the end result can (or at least should) be the same.

That is where the clear structure ends. Here are some things that I think are problems in the church in applying the greater good principle.

A.  Narrow definition of the will of God. This goes back to absolutism models. One way of avoiding conflict in God’s standards is to reduce God’s standards. So when Government says to do one thing and God says to do something else, the church obeys God. That is a good thing, but the fact that God says to honor civil authority is ignored so as to avoid the conflict. Now, I agree with the end result in this case. However, this cavalier tossing aside of aspects of God’s will can cause problems. After all, abortion clinic bombers come up, quite logically, an ethical basis for their acts by grabbing hold of one moral guideline (protect the innocent) while downgrading other aspects of God’s will. Some try to work around the rule not to lie (actually bear false witness… not quite the same thing) by deception. While I agree that there may be times that deception is okay… it is questionable to pretend that one is not bearing false witness when deception leads to the same result.

B.  Social justice. There is a stunning amount of the Bible dedicated to the idea of social justice. My favorite is the book of Micah, but there is much much more. Jesus repeats much of the same in the Gospels. Liberation Theologians like to say that God is on the side of the poor, the needy, the innocent. While Liberation Theologians often takes the point to far, they do have a point.

Social justice needs to be near the top on the ethical scale. Micah 6 places social justice above worship.

This matters. Take the story of protecting the Jews in World War II. Would you lie and say you are housing no Jews? Would you speak honestly and declare that you have them, because you don’t want to lie? Or do you refuse to house them in the first place because “it is against the law?” I believe the social justice is higher than governmental regulations (please don’t start bombing abortion clinics… I already spoke about that above) or lying. When in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of protecting the downtrodden and the innocent.

C.  Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process of personal release of blame and condemnation. Forgiveness should be done because it is God’s will, and in line with God’s character. It is also healthy for us. However, forgiveness is not necessarily the same as reconciliation. It also does not necessitate the removal of consequences. Why is that? Because Christians are to forgive to make peace and lead to unity and growth. It is not meant to hide sin, provide fertile soil for sin to grow, empower the sinner to remain spiritually stunted, and endanger others. The well-being of the offender and the well-being of innocent ones takes priority.

I have seen this problem in churches where a member of a church is attacked (such as rape) by another member of the church. I have seen some churches try to cover that up under the label of “forgiveness.” When the victim is underage it becomes even a bigger problem because the individual lacks power to act independently. All they see is injustice and the evildoer empowered to act again.

D. Government. Churches have trouble with government. Most churches like separation of church and state. However, they commonly link themselves to the state in some rules. For example a lot of churches essentially share the same definitions and rules regarding marriage and divorce with civil authorities. That may have worked 100 years ago when the state tended to accept the expertise of the church in that area. Times have changed and problems result. The church ends up either further reorganizing its understanding to be in line with the state, or it gets more and more frustrated as the government does not keep in line.

Additionally churches have trouble in what to bring before the state. Paul talks about churches seeking to keep its financial conflicts within its own doors instead of taking it before the civil courts. The argument Paul gives is “Can’t the church take care of its own matters?” Perhaps back then it could, but the obvious answer today is absolutely not. The church can’t handle matters, and the call to keep lawsuits out of the courts today can be a tacit agreement to allow the evildoer to prosper in the church. To aid a person in keeping sinning is not actually helping them. Helping them may mean putting them in a position to be punished. The courts today are very different than they were in Corinth, and it seems doubtful that an ad hoc answer to a specific question in a specific cultural setting should be applied unilaterally regardless of the circumstances. Additionally, attempts to apply the passage to criminal activities is even less justified. Some churches try to keep all matters away from civil government. There is no justification Biblically for this. It is for the benefit of the church, society, the perpetrator, the victim, and future victims that justice (tempered with mercy) to ensure good comes of a bad situation.

Conclusions

I am not sure this has been helpful. But I am hoping at least a few random thoughts will at least get some to think. I have seen a lot of ethical problems both in American and Pilipino churches because of a poor understanding of God’s will as it pertains to ethics. We can and should do better.