Missions and Theology– Further Thoughts

Saint Thecla Cave Chapel of Ancient Seleucia a...
Saint Thecla Cave Chapel of Ancient Seleucia ad Calycadnum (Photo credit: voyageAnatolia.blogspot.com)

A friend of mine is working to set up some house churches. I have always liked the idea of house churches or house church networks. I have always greatly preferred them to cell churches. Cell churches utilize aspects of house churches, while disempowering them (which often is rather sad). That being said, I have to admit that a lot of this is a matter of taste. Ultimately, I believe different situations lead to different types of churches– be they house churches, house church networks, cell churches, parishes, Sunday school churches, cyberchurches (?) or others.

But the example of house churches got me thinking about theology. I like to say that missions and missions methods should be drawn from a theological foundation. However, some of the works I have read on house churches make me step back for a moment. A good idea (like house churches) can be built off of a poor foundation.

1.  The “Primitive Church” Theology. Some like to point out that the New Testament churches were house churches (or at least house church networks). There is some truth to this… at least physically. However, the first place the church met was in the temple, and then attempts were made to work through the synagogues. Houses were a back-up plan, along with schools, caves, and fields. When centralizing church buildings were an option, Christians tended to choose that option. Nothing in the New Testament writings, nor the practice of the NT Christians suggests that they were compelled theologically toward a house church model.

Essentially, there are two problems with the Primitive Church Theology. The first is that just because something was done a certain way in the New Testament, does not mean necessarily that it is the way churches should be today. The New Testament church commonly held services in Greek, Latin, or Aramaic. The reason was that the culture required the language. That does not necessitate us following the same pattern. In fact, a better principle would be that vernacular language should be the language of the church (whatever that vernacular language might be). In the case of house churches, their existence in the New Testament says more about the culture and social situation in the New Testament. The second problem is that we tend to create the early church in our own image. Even cultic groups like to say that they have “restored” the New Testament church even if their beliefs and practices appear to have no historical connection to primitive Christianity. In these situations, the absence of evidence becomes evidence of a “cover-up” by the “official” church. The early church had variety and had characteristics that are like no church today. That is good, since no church today lives in a culture that is identical to the New Testament Roman Empire (or Parthian, or any other, for that matter).

2.  Spiritualization of Ministry. House churches are useful, but some have tried to describe them in terms of spiritual movement. Some of this has been tied to a Charismatic Eschatology… tying house church movement to the so called 1st, 2nd, and 3rd waves of the spirit (or Spirit) as described by some in that branch of Christianity. Obviously, being a proud card-carrying NON-Charismatic, I would have trouble with this. But I would think that even if I was a Charismatic (theologically speaking) I would be cautious as well. Why? First, there is an unhealthy reductionism to it. Everything was wrong in the church until <BAM> God does something and things are good… but still wrong. Then God does something else and <BAM> things are better… but still wrong. Then <BAM> something new…. we can keep going with this, but it is just hugely simplistic and a bit dishonoring of the Church and God’s work in the Church throughout history. (To be fair, I am Baptist, and we are often guilty of ignoring vast swaths of Christian history as well. Shameful and disrespectful). God has been working in the church throughout history. He has done it in different forms and ways in different places. One is not necessarily best, and it is best to recognize no form is… necessary.

Second, spiritualizing a certain form of ministry puts one in an awkward position of potentially rejecting God. If house churches is God’s new spiritual wave, then to not be involved in house churches is to reject God. Spiritualizing encourages people to turn off their reasoning capacity. We don’t weigh benefits or problems with a certain direction. We don’t see, in this case, if house churches make sense in a certain community or not. We do it or not be part of God’s new spiritual breeze. Spiritualizing Example:  Here in the Philippines, an American “prophet” declared that a certain Charismatic (and charismatic) religious leader was going to be President of the Philippines. This has created the crazy situation of pastors and other religious leaders working to try to make that prophecy come true. While I don’t know why anyone would want a religious leader to go into politics, I understand even less why anyone would feel the need to try to make such a prophecy come true. If it doesn’t come true, the prophecy and the prophet is false… not a problem at all. But when we try to overspiritualize, we tend to shut our minds down and go off in directions as if doing it means aligning with God while doing something else means rejecting God. That is a heavy burden. Best not to spiritualize stuff.

OKAY now. Where are we. I have said that Missions should be grounded on Theology. But I have to do some more thinking. Clearly, it needs to be based on GOOD Theology, not just any theology (or prooftexting). However, maybe it is better to to be Pragmatic (doing something because it appears to work) then create a bad theology around a certain ministry, strategy or program. At least that is where I am right now on this.

St. Joseph at Christmas

St Joseph
St Joseph (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

We know Joseph gets downplayed at Christmas. I suppose it is understandable. But let’s just take a moment to think about his role.

David Zimmerman in “Comic Book Character” notes that mankind takes on four major roles in the Bible. In the Bible, God clearly takes on the role of hero, not people. However, people do take on the role of:

1.  Villain.  As I noted in my book “Theo-Storying” is is not true that Satan is the primary villain of the Bible. We sometimes like to read it that way (very selective reading at that). Satan may be the villain in the heavenly realms, but on earth, we really have no competition. We fit the role of villain better. Satan is more of a partner of ours in our role.

2.  Victim. While we may be the villain… we commonly are also victims in the Bible. Special place is given to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the marginalized. However, we all live in a world that is messed up, a world that we did not create. We sin, but we also are sinned against.

3.  Witness. Mankind may be an active player in the drama… but we also serve as witnesses of what is going on on stage. In the Bible, we are called to act, but also to witness and report.

4.  Partner.  The position of hero in the Bible is already filled, but we have the option of partnering with God. In comic books, there are superheroes and sidekicks. The sidekick doesn’t take the limelight of the superhero, but helps bring success.

Okay, now let’s consider Joseph. Joseph was engaged (betrothed) to a woman who became pregnant outside of wedlock. The visit by the angel explaining the situation did not necessarily make things better. He was still stuck in a culturally very awkward situation. So look at the roles listed above:

A.  Joseph was a Witness and Victim. He had no choice in this. He did not create the problem but found himself experiencing it.

B.  Joseph rejected the role of Villain. It would have been easy to do. He could have rejected Mary… “putting her away”… quietly. He could have felt justified (legally and culturally) to be vengeful.

C.  Joseph also rejected the role of Witness and Victim. Just because one is given a role, one still has a choice to embrace that role or reject it.  Joseph could have passively focused on the injustice he found himself in. He could have backed away– a sulking victim, an uninvolved witness. But he didn’t.

D.  Joseph embraced the role of Partner. He accepted the word of the angel, and accepted Mary. In so doing he chose to be the partner of Mary, with all of its joys and pains, and partner of God and His work.

We find ourselves dealing with these roles too. We are victims… not sure there is anyone who is not. We are witnesses of what God is doing. We can embrace the role of the victim. We can embrace the role of a witness (whether involved or uninvolved). We can take on the role of the villain, seeking to thwart God’s work. Or we can partner with God. The choice is always there.

Absurdist Contextualization: A Serious Business

Few things are as boring, generally, as reading a work on sound theology. Yet if you go into a bookstore (Christian or otherwise) there are shelves of Christian Books. You can find books on:

  • How to be rich (and telling that there is something wrong with you if you are not rich)
  • How to be happy (apparently having a rich spectrum of emotions is not godly)
  • How to eat and exercise (God’s way to buns and acquire abs of steel)
  • How to know future events (God’s hidden secret messages regarding future events that we can’t find without paying someone)
  • Pleasant Christian thoughts recycled by authors of books they wrote before (or had written for them before).

These books attract interest (and buyers) by talking about things that either aren’t that important or aren’t that true… or both.

Jesus managed to contextualize theology to the hearers of 1st century Judea. One way is in stories (usually here called parables). But stories can be boring and unmemorable as well. One method to attract attention used was (and is) humor/shock.

We often don’t see Jesus as being humorous. We have (at least) four challenges to finding humor in the stories of Jesus.

  1. The stories are too well known for us to feel the shock in them. While, I disagree with the reductionist view that humor is simply a form of shock, shock (or the “twist” in the tale) is often where humor is found in stories. No one gets surprised to learn that firemen keep their pants up using suspenders because the twist in the joke is too well-known… it lacks shock..
  2. We lack the cultural reference points. So much of humor is culturally laden. Some humor has a universal quality to it, but much is tied to current events and local culture. I listen to old-time radio. I tend to like listening to “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Jack Benny Show” rather than “The Bob Hope Show.” Although Bob Hope was a comic genius, much of his humor was “current” humor. That is, it was tied to what was going on with local events and contemporary personalities. Since the show was done in the 1940s and 1950s, much of those references are unknown to us now. Even if they are still known, it is hard to see the humor in many of them. With Fibber McGee and Jack Benny there is a greater focus on human foibles and the universal human condition. Therefore, there is more of a universal quality to the humor, and is more accessible today, although created in the same time as Bob Hope. But in nearly all cases, humor breaks down with greater time and culture gaps.
  3. We often identify humor through voice inflection and visual cues. Much of the art of the great storyteller is lost in written text. To make the humor obvious, one needs to find cues of the humor in the text and reconvert it into live storytelling. When Jesus talks about religious leaders carefully removing dirt from the outside of a cup and then swallowing a camel by mistake, this hyperbolic situation clearly demands exaggerated vocal inflection and gestures to pull out the true absurdity of the scenario.
  4. We like to “theologize” or “spiritualize” what Jesus says. We read of the Kingdom of Heaven being as a tiny mustard seed that, when planted, grows into a tree that the birds perch on. We then like to argue about what the birds “mean.” If the seed is the kingdom of God, what are the birds? Yet, most likely, Jesus added birds to emphasize contrast and reversal. A seed that a bird would barely waste its time to eat because it was so small becomes something so big that the same bird could now sit on, along with its friends. This absurd (and yet mundane) event is like God’s Kingdom which starts so insignificantly, and yet will expand and grow until it cannot be ignored.

Consider the story of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35). It has elements of the absurd that humorously contrasts with the culturally mundane aspects of the story.

A. The size of the debt. 10,000 talents is a HUGE amount. Some theologize this to try to make the point as to how much we are in debt to God. While there may be elements of truth in this (we are saved by God’s forgiving our sin debt since we lack any other resource for “paying it off”) the size of the debt is probably meant to catch the attention of the listener due to the ridiculous size of it. It is as if a story today talked of a man who owed someone 3 billion US dollars. The listener pulls back in shock. “How could someone owe THAT MUCH MONEY??” “This king, was he an IDIOT to lend so much money to one person?” “What sort of person would even TRY to build up such a debt?”

B. The request for patience. The debtor promises to pay it back if given more time. “How ridiculous!” thinks the hearer. “The man must know he could never ever ever pay back such a debt.” “Does this man really think the king is such a fool as to believe such an obvious lie?”

C. Total forgiveness of debt. There is no pay back schedule. No reduction of debt. No deal. Rather, complete eradication of a monstrous debt by decree. “Who could be so rich and/or so merciful to simply cancel a debt as if it did not happen?” “Is the king so kind, or the man so deserving, or what?”

D. The tiny debt and the ridiculous response. The man who was the first debtor sees another who owes him a hundred denarii… a pretty small amount… hardly worth stressing about. This new debtor promises to pay. Unlike that of the first debtor, the payment of this second debt should be easily within the ability of this second debtor… given a little time. Yet the first debtor has this second debtor thrown in debtor’s prison. “What a repugnant, ungrateful man!” “What man could receive so much grace, and yet be so harsh and selfish?”

E. The twist. The first debtor’s actions have not gone unnoticed. The king is notified and brings in the first debtor, giving him the punishment he so richly deserves. The irony is complete. Because the first debtor could not give a small bit of grace, he lost the enormous amount of grace he was given.

F. The reversal of affection. Most of the hearers, then and now, can relate to being in debt to a king, or rich person, or powerful bank or corporation. Few can relate to the king (or powerful equivalent). Because of this, people are more likely to feel sympathy for the first debtor. Few feel happy for such a person being punished, and few would feel a positive connection with a despotic ruler. Yet the story develops an ironic twist in our attachments. We feel sorry for the king for being duped by such a selfish unmerciful man, and feel a rush of (righteous?) joy when that same man gets his comeuppance. One of the most effective stories to use reversal of affection to make a point is the book of Jonah.

The humor in the parable (in the forms of shock, hyperbole, and irony) help make the story memorable. Then Jesus added the final twist that ties it to the story. If God is the king, and we have been granted mercy by God, then we are the first debtor. We have no choice regarding that role, but we have choice in how we play out that role. We can act like the man in the story, or we can make a new story.

Effective contextualization, translation, and transmission of God’s message should not be afraid of utilizing story and humor. However, it really does take an insider to master the art of story and humor.

Maybe that is the real challenge. Maybe theologians do not understand the culture that they seek to minister to to the extent that they can adapt God’s message in a culturally interesting and humorous way.


Church Ministry Symbiosis

Dormition Cathedral, Moscow
Dormition Cathedral, Moscow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to describe churches as having three basic ministries.  These are:

1.  Community Care. Care and development of people within the church family.

2.  Church Growth.  Activities that would expand the local church family (outside of biological growth I suppose)

3.  Missions. Activities that focus on expanding the kingdom of God without necessarily expanding the local church family.

Ideally, these should work together symbiotically. Community care should train people to be involved in church growth and missions. Likewise, community care should make the church family a desirable place to be a part of. Church growth should increase the community and the ability to care for itself, and the pool to draw from for missions work. Missions trains church members for community care and church growth and gives added purpose for the church.

Sadly, they often do not function symbiotically. Sometimes they are at war with each other.

1.  Community Care can become the end function of the church. Budgets and manpower are utilized to have great facilities and activities for its members. Resources set up for outreach (either church growth or missions) are deprioritized and reduced.

2.  Church Growth can become the primary focus. Members are not taken care of. They may also not be trained for fear that they might leave the church and minister elsewhere. Budgets are centralized on bringing more people in and preventing them from leaving. Missions is seen as pointless since it does not directly benefit the size of the church.

3.  While less common, missions can be the central focus. Activities are focused on distant ministries and the church members don’t minister locally, but just pool resources for other people to serve God.

For the ministries of the church to be effective, there must be intentionality in having these work together. Many in Missions and in Church Ministry complain about how few churches are truly “on fire” for ministry or fail to be involved effectively in missions. In fact, however, many church leaders create this environment. They focus on “church leadership,” “church growth,” “closing the back door of the church,” and this develops a certain… well… ecclesiastical selfishness. The members see little value in focusing on God’s Kingdom when everything they are taught focuses on their own little fiefdom.

What would be the best way to get the ministries of the church to work together for the good of the church family, the local community, and world… all three of which are to be important parts of God’s Kindom??

Nice article the continues the question of “The Cross and the Sword” in the context of Christendom and Missions History

Global Theology

From the last decade of the 15th century, Europe would welcome the discovery of a new continent, and with it the opportunity for the expansion of empire and Christendom. Those nations most immediately suited to seize this opportunity were the naval empires of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal. Both royal houses were firmly aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and assumed an imperial mandate to expand the authority of the church along with political and economic growth. The missionary endeavors which the Roman Catholic Church would embark upon in the formative years of European global exploration would set in place the foundation for overseas evangelization strategy and reverberate in the methods of other European nations and leave an indelible impact on global Christianity. Understanding the social context for this initial push in overseas missions can put into perspective the successive waves of zealous missionaries and their understandings of Christendom…

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God, Paradigm, and Ockham’s Razor

The Ockraz Logo
The Ockraz Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

<Warning!! In ancient times I was a mechanical engineer and for awhile a nuclear engineer. So I used to know something about physics. Now that I am a theology type… I have fallen behind in the natural sciences. So if you are underwhelmed with the science side of this post, no problem… but I believe the logic side stands the test.>

William of Ockham is well-known for his quote, “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” It is the basis for “Ockham’s Razor” or the Principle of Economy, or the idea that the simpler of two theories is most likely the correct one. So for example, if one of my students comes to class without his homework, I might theorize that he forgot to do it. Suppose he says that my theory is incorrect, and offers a competing narrative/theory where Space Ninjas came to his house the night before to steal his homework because he had inadvertently discovered the secret to the ultimate weapon that could be used by the beautiful Princess Hezaria and her rag-tag rebels against the Space Ninjas and their vicious ruler, Lord Jurggon. My student, sadly, had to destroy the homework rather than allow it to get into the clutches of pure Intergalactic Evil. I might consider applying Ochham’s Razor to the situation and suggest that since my theory (his forgetfulness) is simpler than a political battle with alien lifeforms, it is LIKELY that my theory is correct. Now, on the other hand, if my student came and said that his computer crashed so he could not print it off that morning, both theories are equally simple, so I must use other methods to discern the truth (like evaluate his record of trustworthiness).

I have heard Ockham’s Razor used to argue about Cosmogeny… the birth a the Universe. There are a few problems with sloppy use of this principle.

1.  Ockham’s Razor is far from proof, it just provides insight. Complicated things happen all of the time. If one’s homework was destroyed in a battle with aliens, it is likely that one will not be believed… but that does not change the fact that it was true. Quantum Mechanics is far from simple, but (unless new work comes in and offers insight) it appears to be generally true (God DOES play with dice) despite thousands of years of simpler theories.

2.  The simplest is not always the best. In Cosmogeny, the simplest theory is that the Universe has always been. That theory has been embraced by many different groups at different times. However, with the inductive development of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the doubt regarding static equilibrium within the Universe (since there appears to be no balancing force against gravity), and the observation of doppler shift in the viewing of the stars, the simplest explanation has taken a beating. Some have, however, rehashed it with the the slightly more complicated oscillating Universe (big bang, big crunch, big bang, big crunch, etc.).

Of course, Ockham’s Razor assumes that the theory should be the simplest one that answers all known questions and is consistent with all of the known data. However, it is often in the unknown data where much of the pertinent information dwells. In the homework example above, my own (as the teacher) ignorance about space politics compels me to assume that my student was being fanciful. In fact, the information that I actually KNOW to be true is extremely limited, so I have to make an awful lot of judgment calls regarding the value of the information provided me by my student. Additionally, most of the information I received is not very testable, since history is not testable (in the strictest sense) by the scientific method. History can be judged by the historico-logical method but the results are probabilistic (likelihood and doubt) rather than “proof.”

Cosmogeny has the same problem. History can’t be tested scientifically (again, in the strictest sense) so one has to use other methods. We lack a huge amount of knowledge about the start of the Universe (we weren’t there when the Universe came to be, we know of no alternate “universes” to compare to). The oscillating Universe, for example, assumes that the gravity field in the Universe is strong enough to reverse the bang to give us a crunch. Estimates can be made to determine if this is likely, but there are still an awful lot of unknowns here. Also, for the oscillating Universe to work, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics must be violated. Is that possible? Who knows? Should the reversal of the 2nd Law crush the idea of an oscillating Universe or not?

The Phlogiston Theory (of combustion) and the Ether Theory (of light propagation) of previous centuries became more and more fanciful and complicated to try to deal with new evidence. Some appeared to be self-contradictory. In Phlogiston, how come some materials combust/rust and gain weight while others lose weight? This contradictory behavior caused great problems. With Ether, how could a medium to transmit light be extremely hard (allowing rapid propagation) while being extremely soft (allowing solids to move through it). These and other contradictions eventually crushed these theories. However, the Wave and Particle models for Light theory have so far been held onto in paradox. Is this justified or do we need something better? Simple is NOT always better.

3.  Ockham’s Razor often has a hidden component… cultural reasonableness. Because of lack of data and limited knowledge of all of the possible scenarios, one is forced to consider reasonableness. That is why in courts of law we don’t seek “proof” but “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Reasonableness is the hidden component in Ockham’s Razor. The problem is that Reasonableness is heavily culturally laden. For example, consider angels versus aliens. Angels are messengers of God, from outside of space-time. They presumably are able to defy the natural laws of space-time (that is essentially what supernatural means). Aliens, on the other hand are beings of the natural realm of space-time and limited by natural laws.

So suppose beings come to earth with appearances and abilities that are outside of what is found on earth. What label would be applied. A Theist might call them angels while a Naturalist might call them aliens. Each would have good reasons to come to their conclusions based on Ockham’s Razor.

A Naturalist would question the necessity of even considering the supernatural if a natural explanation is possible. We know nature exists so embracing a supernatural theory is unnecessary as long as a theory could be brought up that is consistent with the naturalist paradigm. As Arthur C. Clark said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So if being show magical abilities, that is just proof of how advanced technologically they are.

A Theist on the other hand can equally strike at the implausible nature of aliens. The vastness of space, and the fact that as far as we know faster than light transportation is impossible, makes alien visits from anything farther than say 100 light-years unlikely at best. Wormholes seem doubtful or at least unreliable (if they exist). On the other hand, angels, not being part of space-time can simply be in a parallel universe or dimension so coming to earth involves interacting with the human plane of existence (much like a 3-dimensional object would interact with “Flatland” or a 4-dimensional object would interact with “Sphereworld.” There is no need for believing in interstellar travel that appears to be impossible.

In each case, a member of each group can easily point out the unreasonableness of the alternate view. However, in each case, the unreasonableness results from the sub-culture he or she is part of.

4.  Ockham’s Razor has little value for paradigm shift. People work within a worldview or paradigm. A well-grounded paradigm is almost impossible to contradict. Some people talk about God “in the gaps.” The idea is that as science advances, it explains the world around us and so God becomes more unnecessary… finding relevance only in the gaps of human/scientific knowledge. This is an amazingly flawed idea. The idea is that natural law is in the realm of some sort of atheistic science and the miraculous is the realm of God. So as miracles are debunked, or at least found unnecessary, God becomes unnecessary. In fact, God is the god of natural law. God may be the god of miraculous (non-normative) events, but God is declared in the heavens not in the odd events. Theists sometimes seek to give credence to this way of flawed thinking. When I was young, people would tell me how a bumblebee was proof of God because science claims that a bee lacks the structure and aerodynamics to fly. The logic seemed to be that God miraculously made every bee fly, and if we discovered a natural explanation why a bee could fly non-miraculously, that would lessen the likelihood that there is a God. Yet it is in the amazing design of the bee that appears (at least) to defy evolutionary chance that best argues for a God. God is not in the gaps.

But a naturalist paradigm or a theist paradigm is almost impossible to contradict because almost any bit of evidence could be forced into either paradigm. The simple reason is Ockham’s Razor. That is, any explanation/theory that involves changing one’s paradigmatic stance will almost invariably appear to be less simple than any explanation that allows one to maintain that stance. Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigmatic shifts in science can be applied to other areas of thought and culture.

So what does Ockham’s Razor tell us about God and the beginning of the Universe?  Not much. What it does tell us… is about us. Knowing what seems reasonable to each of us doesn’t necessarily tell us much about what is reasonable on an objective level, but it does instruct us as to what our worldview is.

In missions, our role is NOT to play the game RELIGION VERSUS SCIENCE. Much of the battle between the two is really the battle between Theism and Atheism (or Supernaturalism and Naturalism). However, in Christian missions it is wise to know the field of play regardless. Faith should never be about “turning off your brain.” In fact, historically, humankind has generally operated in a paradigm (or one of many paradigms) of belief in god, gods, or God. Intellectuals believed in the divine throughout history, and the statement in the Bible that “a fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'” was more than a statement of moral foolishness. It was also a rejection of what the intellectually wise believed. The Greek Philosphers of millenia ago tended to reject the curious legends of the Greek pantheon. Yet they typically still believed in Deus (“The One”). Thomas Hobbes, the patron saint of modern atheism, did believe in a god of sorts, just not one that was supernatural.

Christians, and those in Christian missions, need to understand the intellectual paradigm they hold and the intellectual paradigms of those who live around them. It is unlikely one can intellectually compel someone to change paradigm (as I said, paradigms are resilient and are maintained in part by Ockham’s Razor). However, it does help to be able to demonstrate that one’s worldview and faith is an intellectually sound alternative.