On the Theme “Walking With”: a Missions Theology. Part 1

This is not fully thought out. I am thinking this through as I write. I feel that “Walking With” is a phrase that may serve as a unifying theme for a Missions Theology.

The expression “Walking With” has a number of implications:

1.  Relationship. “Walking With” implies some form of mutual relationship. A stalker may share a common path with the stalkee, same as two strangers may coincidentally and temporarily share a common path. Neither would be said to be walking with. Walking with implies some form of relationship. It may be a leader walking with a follower. It may be two companions.

2.  Agreement. As Amos 3:3 notes… two cannot walk together unless they agree. The relationship is by mutual agreement.

3.  Movement/Process: Walking implies not so much a state of being, as much as a process. Life and faith and mission are not so much a place or destination… but a path that they share and develop with.

4.  Direction:  Walking has direction… a path that one goes on. It could be a trail newly blazed, it may be a well-worn path… but it goes somewhere.

5.  Commonality of Place and Time. Walking with means that two or more share a place and time on the path. As such, the path has more than direction, but a NOW, as well as a PAST, and a FUTURE.

“Walking With” as a theological concept may be applied in several ways:

  • God walking with Man as His creation
  • Christ walking with us as His disciples
  • Us walking within the community as part of the church family
  • Us walking within the cultural context as joining in God’s mission to the world

While I am focusing on the last point… the others need to be developed as well or else Missions Theology would simply be a ghettoized system unconnected with a broader understanding of God, the Universe, and Everything. I hope to look at these four areas (at least) in the next posts.

Wholistic Mentoring. Not Just Holy, But Whole.

In  a few weeks, I will be teaching a two-week module (at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary) on Missionary Member Care. It will be from April 29 to May 10 (2013). It is a topic I enjoy. The focus of the Member Care will be on the psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational stresses associated with the professional missionary. Of course, many of the students/trainees (assuming of course that anyone shows up) will likely be pastors or seminarieans or others that don’t fit the classic definition of missionary.

Annie Walker Armstrong, American Baptist missi...
Annie Walker Armstrong, American Baptist missionary organizer and leader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend of mine from many years ago died. I lost touch with him around 20 years ago and hadn’t heard anything of him until a few months ago. I knew him as a college student and later as a youth pastor. Somewhere along the line things went wrong. His marriage failed and he lost his ministry. He drifted into various jobs and alcoholism. Eventually he died of complications from his addiction.

 

It seems an unnecessary waste. I don’t really know the demons (I am using the term metaphorically) that were in his life. But his story is not unique. And in missions it is all too common. Things are often especially hard for Filipino missionaries serving overseas. In some ways, their situation is easier than for American missionaries. Filipinos do not come from an imperialistic country, so they are often accepted more readily. Fiipinos also have an appearance the allows them to blend in in many parts of the world. Fiipinos also are part of a globalistic culture… having workers scattered around the whole world… especially in areas that would commonly be thought of as primary mission countries. But there are some strong stressors:

 

  • Filipino churches don’t really support missionaries. They might “love gift” but few provide regular support.
  • Filipino churches don’t train missionaries. They may have a “commissioning” but otherwise don’t prepare the missionaries.
  • Filipino churches don’t empower missionaries. They may “release” missionaries, but they don’t truly “send” them.
  • Filipino churches don’t encourage missionaries. They would prefer their people to stay and work with the church, or work overseas and send back money. Missionaries are not encouraged to go and not encouraged while there.

I could go on. Is this a stereotype? Yes… but so many are left on the field alone and lonely, undersupported, and disempowered. It is a tough situation. It puts a huge stress on themselves and their family.

 

So why am I talking about all of this? My wife, a clinical chaplain, asked me (since I will be teaching Missionary Member Care) what is the solution? What program would I set up to fix things? Since many of the trainees will be pastors, not missionaries, what will I have to say to them that will help them as well?

 

The best answer I can give is “I Don’t Know.” One problem I find is that most Christian professionals don’t want help. Oh… maybe they crave help… but they don’t trust that help really exists. There can be a few reasons for that:

 

  • Some have theological reasons. Some do not trust counseling, considering it to be “secular” (a code word meaning that it is not blessed by God).
  • Some feel they have to exude strength. Will their church love (or at least respect) them if they demonstrate normal human frailty and struggles.
  • Some don’t trust. Heartfelt admissions of problems to close friends and colleagues become next week’s juicy gossip.
  • Some deny problems. They may externalize, rationalize or deny… but in the end they decide it is nothing for them to get help about.

Commonly, missionaries seek help only when forced to… either by “hitting bottom” or by being gently but firmly threatened by their mission agency or supporters. For pastors, it can even be more difficult… especially if they are from an autonomous church tradition. They have none to firmly push them to get help. The only one they are responsible to is the church body… it is more likely that the church body will push him to leave rather than get help.

 

I don’t have a good answer. I don’t believe helping someone who wants no help is of much value… especially if there is no tangible direct consequences for not getting help.

 

For me, I guess I could cautiously suggest a two prong approach:

 

A.  Have programs: counseling and support groups available for those who truly hit bottom and all who voluntarily or involuntarily seek help. This may be a small percentage of those who need help… but at least it is there.

 

B.  Set up Wholistic Mentoring in seminaries and bible schools. Mentoring is one-on-one discipleship of an open supportive (more) mature minister. Wholistic means that the mentorship is

 

          -Not simply Bible Study

 

          -Not simply professional/miniserial

 

          -Not simply academic

 

Wholistic means that there is concern for all aspects (emotional, psychological, mental, academic, professional, spiritual, relational, etc.) of growth, with special focus on integration of these aspects of one’s life to create a WHOLE PERSON. One advantage of doing this at seminary or bible school is that it sets up individuals to cope with the stresses of ministry. A second advantage is that if the habit of wholistic mentoring begins in school, maybe it will continue for a lifetime. Of course, not all potential mentors are able to deal with the whole person. In some cases a student may have to have multipl

 

e mentors and must do the integration himself (or herself).

 

We want Christian ministers to be HOLY. But those who are HOLY but are not WHOLE… are still broken, and broken in a way that can lead to disaster.

 

 

 

 

 

The Roles of Justice within Love and Mercy.

I like murder mysteries. Particularly, I tend towards the somewhat “old-fashioned” ones… at least old-fashioned British in attitude and convention. Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Dick Francis. I like have no interest in figuring out “whodunit.” I like to ride the rollercoaster of the story and see where it takes me. I want to see the short-term success of evil followed by the battle between good and evil, with the final triumph of good over evil. It satisfies some sort of visceral need.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do like stories that are set in the real world… at least the real world of human motivation. As such, I don’t really prefer the Dickensian idealization of characters. Evil people have redeemable qualities while the righteous have very human failings. Still I am not really interested in the telenovella-ish stories where the enforcers of justice are just as bad as the people they hunt. I don’t mind a short story where evil triumphs (we live in a fallen world and that is reality sometimes), but I hate to invest days reading a novel to end without clear justice for the evildoer.

OKAY… nobody cares about what I like to read. But why do so many people like to read stories about justice? Or further, why do so many people want to see justice happen. A cynic might say that we want justice for “THEM” while we want mercy for “US”… however we might define them or us. I suppose I am cynical enough to agree. But removing the subjective for the abstract… why do we want justice?

1.  Punishment.  Punish the evildoer… or the one who violated set law… or societal norms. It often feels good when people do bad and have bad returned to them (a bit of “kharma,” to pull a term loosely from a different religious context). There is a bit of moral accountancy about us at times. We want the books to balance out at the end where people who invested in that which is bad (especially bad to others) get a return on their investment in the form of what is bad to them. And we want the injured parties to be recompensed if possible.

2.  Rehabilitation. Some see justice as part of a restorative process. For some, they believe that punishment may in itself be enough to convince a person not to be on the wrong side of the law.  Others see it as a positive opportunity for training. If someone is incarcerated, it is a good time to train in new attitudes, skills, and behaviors to remove the desire or incentive to do that which is evil.

3.  Follow-Through. In a society, there are norms and consequences to violation of norms. The goal is to NOT have people violate these norms/rules. The justice system in this case is essentially preventive. It is not to punish, quarantine or rehabilitate the evildoer. Rather, the carrying out of the punishment is simply a necessary act to ensure that societal standards have teeth. In other words, punishment is not really for the perpetrator or the victim. It is seen as a failure of the system and done simply in the hopes that next time the rules of society will not be ignored. If you don’t follow-through on a promise, it becomes an idle threat.

4.  Quarantine. While it may be desirable in many ways to see punishment exacted, what may be punishment to one (such as capital punishment, imprisonment, restraining orders, or removal of privileges) provides a quarantine role for others. A thief cannot break into houses in his neighborhood if he is in prison.

5.  Reward. One could view freedom to move and act as independent agents in an open society as a privilege. Because a person decides to follow the rules of society, she is rewarded with the privileges associated with freedom.

If you look at these five purposes of justice… it starts with focus on the perpetrator… the violator, and then gradually shifts to focus on the law-abider. All five of these (and there may be more) are related to justice, and none should be ignored.

Why am I talking about this on a Missions Blog?

A.  God is a god of mercy and love, but this does not discount the understanding that God is also a god of justice. Arguably, Love is like a coin with two sides. One side is grace (or mercy) and the other is law (or justice). Godliness requires godly love and such love as that is not one-sided.

B.  God set up principles for us as Christians that balance mercy and justice. In the Bible, God calls for social justice… particularly for the weak, helpless, and innocent as He calls for mercy and love. We don’t just sin… we are also sinned against. What are the consequences of this? Forgiveness doesn’t necessitate forgetting or trusting.

C.  We live in situations where evil occurs. In these situations, there are perpetrators and victims. There is also the broader society. Application of love and mercy to one, may effectively be destructive to another. This is why there must be balance. Missionaries with a poor understanding of the balance of justice and mercy can make things worse… especially for the victim (creating “revictimization”).

D.  Often evil occurs not only when social norms are violated, but when the social norms are inherently flawed. Missionaries do not have the privilege on turning away and focusing only on “spiritual things” (read the book of Amos before thinking that we can ignore social injustice).  In the Philippines, there is governmental corruption (it varies considerably from region to region and from department to department). There is also sexual tourism and exploitation. There is human trafficking. There is worker exploitation. Laws are often applied unevenly depending on the social or financial situation of individuals. It is unjust, unmerciful, unloving to not address these. Of course every country has its problems… so in every country there is cause to stand for justice. 

Yes I see I have been rambling. Maybe I will clean this post up later.

In essence, missionaries must be sharers of God’s love. But God’s love is not a sugarcoated shadow of love. It seeks what is best/necessary for the evildoer, the victim, and the broader society (the broader society being a secondary or tertiary victim). Godly love also challenges the broader society, counter-culturally. Godly love seeks to find the challenging balance of mercy and justice for all parties. It may involve punishment, rehabilitation, quarantine, following-through, and rewarding of various parties. It may require forgiveness and reconciliation. It may be dissatisfying to all parties, but to fail to find such a broad and difficult balance is to not truly express godly love.

My Metaphors of the Moment

English: Walking path around Lake Rotokare
English: Walking path around Lake Rotokare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three metaphors that have special value to me are listed below. One is abstract, One is practical. One is personal.

The abstract metaphor is the “Flexible Bridge.” To me, we have an unchanging God and an unchanging revelation. On the other hand, we are constantly changing and live in a world and culture that is constantly in flux. As such, we need a bridge that is connected to both… both the unchanging end and the changing end. Christ as God incarnate (God and Man) provides a flexible bridge. Additionally, between revelation and culture is theology… a flexible bridge. Flexibility is still limited by God’s nature and God’s revelation (like a strange attractor in Chaos Theory).

The practical metaphor is a “Walking Path.” To me, life is a path… a path of walking with God. Adam and Eve, Enoch were described to walk with God, and writers such as Micah (Micah 6:8) and other passages describe life’s journey as walking with God. Jesus, additionally, described choices in terms of a narrow or wide path. To me this describes several things in a powerful way. Relationship with God is relational (Amos 3:3). It also suggests that life finds meaning in the journey more than the destination. Further, the Christian life finds relevance, in part, in the diverse terrains, diverse challenges, the diverse relationships that come along the way. Finally, change is good. One should change and grow… the Christian life is not a place, a position, but a path.

The personal metaphor is an “Unfinished Tapestry.” My life is made up of stories. One can view each story as a thread. There is the story of “Bob the successful” and there is the story of “Bob the failure.” There is “Bob the Hero” and “Bob the Coward.” These different stories all interrelate to each other and to the stories of others. Additionally, all these different story threads interrelate with the grand narrative of God. This interweaving creates a tapestry. As any tapestry has a pattern to it… so does the tapestry of my life. However, because I am too close to it, I am unable to see that pattern. However, I know that there are threads that are important… story threads that must be strengthened, and thickened. There are other story threads and interconnections that should be thinned or even removed.

So where is God in all of this? In the bridge metaphor… God is my foundation… my stability… the one who can be relied upon as everything else changes. In the path metaphor… God is the trailblazer… my guide… the one who knows the way I should go. In the tapestry metaphor… God is the master weaver… the one who brings everything together… making all things beautiful in His time… even if that beauty is obscured by my own perspective.

Looking at these three metaphors… there is a common theme to all of them. The theme is CONNECTEDNESS. A bridge connects to things that are separated. A path connects a starting place with a finishing place. A tapestry is the interweaving or interconnectedness of different discrete elements, creating something new and, often, beautiful.

Sin, in its essence, is disconnected… selfishness that causes not only separation with God… but with others… and even within ourselves. The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace… etc.) are characteristics that typically lead to relationship… to connectedness.

Cleansing the Church’s “Court of the Gentiles”?

English: Wailing Wall from the Tankizyya
English: Wailing Wall from the Tankizyya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would like to pull together three fairly unrelated things. Layers of Culture, the Layout of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Christian outreach.

First.  Layers of Culture.  Linwood Barney showed layers of culture. Inmost is ideology, cosmology, and worldview. The figure for this is below. These are the least visible cultural characteristics.

Levels of culture
Levels of culture

Out from that is values. Outward from that are institutions. On the outside is Material artifacts and observable behavior.

I find it a useful model. When we see a culture. We see the artifacts and observable behavior.  It takes greater digging to get to the deeper layers.

I guess, however, I would like to separate the outermost layer into two levels. The two levels would be:

  • Outside-accessible artifacts and behavior (outer skin)
  • Other artifacts and behavior (inner skin)

2.  Temple in Jerusalem. Let me take the example of the Old Testament temple. The temple mount had four courtyards:

  • Court of Gentiles
  • Court of (Jewish) Women
  • Court of Israel (Jewish Men)
  • Court of Priests

The outermost court was the court of the Gentiles. So if you were not a Jewish believer, that was as far as you could come into the temple mount. Observation of the practices of the temple was limited to that level. To an outsider the Court of the Gentiles provided the access and the limitations of access for material artifacts and observable behavior of the temple culture. That is where outsider-accessible material artifacts and observable behavior ends. Other artifacts and observable behavior exist but are not directly accessible to an outsider.

Now consider the story in Matthew 21 where Jesus “cleansed the temple.” It described His strong reaction to the moneychangers and selling stalls in the temple. There are a lot of views regarding why Jesus did this. Was it righteous anger over profiteering? Was it demonstrating His authority? Was He fulfilling Scripture?

I am not going to hazard a definitive answer. Instead let me give my own reaction. The moneychangers and the selling stalls were in the court of the Gentiles. While Isaiah 56:7 said that the house of God (in this case referring to the temple in Jerusalem) would be a house of prayer for all nations. In theory, a curious non-Jew could go the temple mount, and go as far as court of the Gentiles. What would be the accessible artifacts and behavior? Coins, animals, noisy buying and selling. It certainly was not a place of prayer for all nations. It seems doubtful that a Gentile coming to the temple mount would gain a positive view of what is going on in the temple. And that is a shame. It is as if a group puts up signs on the edge of their property telling people to go away… nothing worthwhile to see here.

I recall back in 1991 visiting Jerusalem. It was a bit like a Christian Disneyland. Take a tram/bus from one ride to the next, with little stalls selling various religious products (commonly of olive wood). Actually, the moneychangers along the Via Dolorosa were probably the least offensive, and offered rates of exchange better than the banks. The best part of that trip was the Wailing Wall. Its simplicity and its availability for all people to come and quietly pray to God was inspirational. One could imagine that was the original purpose of the Gentile Court.

3.  Christian Outreach. Okay, what about us? What is the “Court of the Gentile” for Christianity? It is where non-Christians have ready access to observing Christianity. Where is this? Typically it is on TV, billboards, church signs, bumperstickers, and the Internet. ISN’T THAT A SCARY THOUGHT? If I wasn’t raised up in a Christian home, I would have learned about Christianity by what I saw on religious programming on TV and bumperstickers. I can’t imagine myself ever choosing to become a Christian based on the inanity that Christians put on TV, on the Internet, and on the road and roadside. Sure, there is great joy and wonder and community in the church… but what outsider would ever see that? And what non-Christian would even want to find out more based on what is outsider-accessible?

We can’t force people to change what they put on the Web or anywhere else. But as Christians, I pray we will take more time recognizing that the foolish-greedy-noisy mess we put into the media is what the rest of the world really sees. If a few will clean up our own outer court, maybe this will start a trend.

Thankfully, there is something else we can do. We can live Christlike ourselves. Getting Christians to behave well as a group is like herding cats. (It is of little comfort to know that this seems to be a characteristic of humanity and all religious an ideological groups have similar problems.) As the song sung by Steve Green states,

Cause You’re the only Jesus some will ever see
You’re the only words of life, some will ever read
So let them see in you the One in whom is all they’ll ever need
You’re the only Jesus, some will ever see

This is one of my first blog posts, but I think it is worthy of reposting. All the training (long-term preparation) is meaningless if we aren’t available and ready (short-term preparation).

MMM -- Munson Mission Musings

The lifeguard stood at his post, attentively searching the water for some poor swimmer who is in need of rescue. He is ever vigilant. He is an expert swimmer, and has been properly certified in CPR and all manners of Water Safety. The lives of hundreds are in his capable hands.

Suddenly, he sees him—a child has gone out too far and is flailing and gasping for air. The lifeguard sounds the horn to clear the water. With speed and grace he races for the parking lot with keys in hand. He jumps in his car and races home to get his swimsuit and life ring. Years of training will pay off today, certainly.

Or will it?

Will the child still be seeking help after the lifeguard has found his suit and life ring and returned to the beach? Very doubtful. One of two likely possibilities will have occurred by…

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Ghosts, Truth Encounter, and Things that go Bump in the Night

Occasionally, I watch these ghost hunter or ghost buster shows on TV. Some (I will call “ghost hunters”) claim that they are being objective… but clearly they are hoping to find evidence of the paranormal, thus evidencing the inadequacy of a naturalistic view of the world. The others (I will call “ghost busters”) also claim to be objective… but clearly they are hoping to debunk the paranormal and restore faith in a naturalistic model of the world.

Ghost Hunters
Ghost Hunters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Both groups use the same tools (night vision, heat sensors, EMF detectors, etc.), go to the same types of places (those considered haunted or centers of paranormal activity) and both groups get essentially the same data (strange images and sounds, and difficult to interpret spikes on dials and such).

Both groups then try to link the phenomena to “natural” causes. Those phenomena that appear to have a very obvious link to natural causes are discounted. (Note: neither group actually proves such causation, but both feel it prudent to assume natural causation for many occurances.)

At this point in time, the two groups diverge.  What do you do when you find no obvious natural causation.

Ghost hunters tend to mark the unexplained as paranormal.

Ghost busters tend to mark the unexplained as potentially normal.

In truth, neither group is particularly convincing in their arguments. One group gets an EVP that sounds like static and they claim to hear a clear voice saying something. But is that true or just trying to force meaning into noise? The other group takes a EVP that actually does sound like a voice message and start talking about picking up stray human voices or signals from unknown origins. But solving a mystery by creating a natural source is hardly objective, is it?

Both groups drift into fantasy quite quickly. Ghost hunters will talk about paranormal activity increasing where there is high EMF and high EMF is common where there is running water. Is there any justification for this causation? Ghost busters talk about the possibility that high EMF causes hallucinations or paranormal activity inside the minds of people. But isn’t that simply creating a fantasy theory to deal with phenomena that doesn’t fit into one’s fit worldview?

I am a ghost agnostic. That is, I am believe in ghosts as a phenomena (something seen, heard, and felt by people) but I have no real opinion as to what they are… if they are anything at all. In other words, I have no faith of any sort as to the ghost question. But ghost hunters are true believers in ghosts (having faith in their existence, finding evidence for their existence compelling) while ghost busters are also true believers… but believers in naturalism (having faith in their non-existence, finding evidence against their existence compelling).

This of course is the problem with dealing with things outside of our own experience. When one says “You have no proof” he is saying “Your evidence is not compelling,.” It is essentially impossible to have evidence so strong that it is universally compelling. If a worldview or paradigm is so weak as to be destroyed by facts alone, it wasn’t a very robust worldview/paradigm in the first place.

Theists and Atheists essentially exist in the same world with the same facts around us. To be honest, neither worldview is particularly compelling. Both require a certain amount doubtful proposals to deal with evidence against. In Chemistry, the Phlogiston Theory lasted for a long time because evidence supporting it was pretty compelling and it was periodically adjusted to deal with evidence against. The same can be said of the Ether Theory in Physics. There is always evidence for and evidence against any system… so it depends on the faith convictions of each person as to what is more compelling. That is why it can be as easily said that an atheist lives by a form of faith as a theist. Each have faith but of a different type because of the difference in its object. The power of faith is in its object not its intensity.

When we share our faith, it is useful to understand this. When we talk to an agnostic, we are dealing with people with limited faith (unless they have faith in the “unknowability” of answer to the “God question”). On the other hand, if we are dealing with an atheist, we are dealing with a faith system every bit as robust (and often bigoted) as any theistic system. It is doubtful that facts will convince them (unless of course they have long been working through doubts… perhaps through God’s working in their lives already). Facts are more useful to give comfort to Christians that it is intellectually justifiable to be a Christian.

The inability of truth to be compelling is a limitation in Truth Encounter. In the past I have brought up the limitations and general failings of Power Encounter. Power Encounter tends to have ambiguous results and often utilizes the mistaken beliefs of the recipients. Additionaly, Power Encounter has limitations because of the limitations of Truth Encounter. Power Encounter provides evidence towards truth, but evidence can never of itself be compelling. Ahab and Jezebel did not become believers in Yahweh because of the failure of the priests of Baal. Why not? Because they did not find the evidence compelling. Who’s to say that Baal failed?  Clearly the priests failed (they could argue) not their god.

Truth Encounter has its place (and Power Encounter can have its place). But Love Encounter… challenging the selfish, self-serving, bigoted, ethnocentric mindset of people with the broad, selfless, abundant love of God has a much better chance of opening the doors to people’s hearts then impressing them with divine power or boggling their minds with God’s truth.

God’s power is all around us, but is somewhat ambiguous as blessings and trials get mixed up in a mixed up world. God’s truth is all around us, but is still in many ways a mystery that we will never fully unravel this side of eternity. But God’s love… it leaves us in awe and gasping for breath when we truly see it. Since God’s love is usually shown through us… we must seek to first of all be a conduit of God’s love, then a conduit of God’s truth, and then a conduit of God’s power.

 

 

 

Contradiction is in the Eye of the Beholder

Cover of "Theological Diversity and the A...
Cover via Amazon

<Suggestion… read the whole article before passing judgment. If you jump to a conclusion half-way through the post, you have jumped too soon>

I got a religious tract recently written and printed in Baguio City, Philippines that seeks to convert Christians to Islam. On first reading, I thought they did a pretty good job. On a second, more critical, reading, I found a lot of problems in it. But that is why it is good to read uncritically the first time. When you start from a critical point, you are shutting your mind out to what is being said.

I noticed that a major point the writer was that the Quran has no contradictions while the Bible has lots of contradictions. I have only read bits of (the English translation of) the Quran. Of the parts I have read, I have seen things I, personally, would describe as quite contradictory. In fact, I was actually a bit surprised to find so many contradictions in so little reading since it is marketed as being without contradiction. Since I am not Muslim, I certain expected contradicitons– I just didn’t expect them to be so glaring… from my perspective at least.

But, really, contradictions are in the eye of the beholder. By this I mean that contradictions are often more emotionally-grounded rather than logically-grounded. In Math, in set theory, in computer programming, in Boolean logic, there are absolute tautologies and contradictions. In the “real” world they really don’t exist, at least they don’t exist without some measure of ambiguity. In other words, in the real world contradictions are often more of an opinion than fact. And even when contradictory in fact may not be all that problematic.

Consider the Bible— since it is the most popular book on earth, a book which many laud and many scoff at… does it have contradictions? The Bible has actually generated an industry of contradiction seekers, and an industry whose job is to counter the first industry. Some non-religious and religious groups (even some that claim to respect the Bible) would say “YES! The Bible is full of contradictions” Many Christian groups will say “NO! There are absolutely no contradictions… in the original autographs at least.” I would rather say that the correct answer is “Yes there are contradictions, but…” And the “but” is important because

  • first, all writings have contradictions of some sort.
  • second, not all contradictions are bad.

<Note: we are talking about contradictions here, not errors. That’s a completely different subject. Nothing to do with this post. Really!>

Let’s break things down.

1.  There are some things that are called contradictions but simply are not. Some say that the Trinity is illogical or “self-contradictory.” Now, I believe that the Trinity is a sound Biblical concept (although some take theological speculation too far to try to dispel mystery. Mystery is good). But even if you don’t believe in the Trinity, it is not illogical or self-contradictory… it is simply outside of our own personal experience. An internally social being is far from illogical, just something that we can’t fully relate to. If we were visiting other planets and found sentient life where the beings were internally social (multiple sane personalities within a unified being), I don’t think we would be able to conquer them by “logic-ing” them away. They would still exist regardless.

In like manner, if two people say two different things, they are not necessarily contradictory. If one verse in the Bible describes God saying that “God is love” while another says that “God is one,” while yet another that “God is a jealous god,” these are not contradictory unless they are mutually exclusive. But let’s not focus on these, but things that can be, in one way or another, be honestly described as contradictions.

I have used the categories described by Jay Goldingay in “Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament” (p. 155ff)

A.  Formal Contradictions. Formal contradictions are contradictory on the level of words, or form, not at the level of substance. A good example of this is in 1st John where John says that Christians don’t sin, while a few verses later it says that anyone who says that he doesn’t sin is a liar (and thus is a sinner). Assuming John was competent, he would not contradict himself on a substantive level, so it is believed that these two statements truthfully coexist in tension with each other. Consider Charles Dickens writing in Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – 

Contradictions? Formally, yes. But it was done with intent and purpose… logical tension to clarify an unclear situation. In Genesis, it says that ALL life was destroyed on earth, while just a couple of verses later, it says that some life survived. It is pretty clear that the writer was not confused. The second statement was meant to add to the prior statement. God is described as being unchanging, while at other times described as having emotions as well as making different decisions and doing different things at different times. It may be wise to assume that the unchanging nature of God is to be understood as compatible with the transitory phenomena we see with God of the Bible. Formal contradictions happen everywhere. As a general rule, if one has the option to judge a contradiction, it is reasonable (and certainly respectful) to start by considering the possibility of whether it is a formal contradiction.

B.  Contextual Contradiction. This describes differences reflecting the variety in circumstances of the writer and reader. Let’s take a fairly obvious example. Suppose two different people asked directions to go to Chicago. One person lives in Washington State and one lives in Connecticut. The one in Washington would be pointed in an Easterly direction while the other would be pointed in a Westerly direction. The two directions to Chicago are contradictory (East versus West) but are both correct within the setting or context in which the directions were given (Washington versus Connecticut).  Isaiah describes God as faithful in protecting Jerusalem, Jeremiah describes God as planning to have Jerusalem destroyed, and Jesus (with the woman at the well and other places) described Jerusalem with, frankly, a bit of ambivalence. However, these were messages given at different times in history to different people and involving different circumstances. For example, the message of Isaiah was to a fearful lot, while the message of Jeremiah was to an overconfident lot. The Word of God to a legalist is likely to be considerably different than to a sybarite. Yet the word can still be compatible… just contextually contradictory. These happen all of the time. It almost seems unfair to describe these as contradictions… but on a certain technical level they are.

C.  Substantial Contradiction. This is where there is true divergence (not just formal or contextual) coming from different perspectives, or personalities. However, the divergence does not necessarily mean that there is a genuine conflict. Consider an American Football team. On a professional teams there is a head coach and an offensive coordinator. Suppose the head coach believes that the way to win is a control-the-clock, ground game, while the offensive coordinator believes that the way to win is a light’em up air barrage. There is a substantive disagreement between the two. However, both have the same ultimate goal (to win) and both are on the same team. The contradiction in this case is not the goal or purpose, but the best method. Intent and purpose are really key in judging substantial contradictions. Consider two arm wrestlers. They are in complete agreement in terms of action— pivot one’s arm counterclockwise. In that sense there is no contradiction. However, they have opposite goals, meaning that they have substantial contradiction of goals. This would be a much greater concern. Substantial contradictions are of much greater concern if they undermine the other perspective. If they reflect personal preferences or opinions while clearly still having the same goals, being “on the same team,” substantial contradictions are not such a problem. In fact, it is the starting place for healthy dialogue.

It is often hard to tell the difference between a substantial contradiction and a form or contextual contradiction. Take for example the Wisdom literature of the Bible. The writers of Proverbs teach that the godly are rewarded while fools suffer. However, when one goes to Job and Ecclesiastes, a different view is portrayed. Sometimes the godly suffer and the fool is rewarded. (And when you get to the Gospels and I Peter it becomes even more challenging— the godly should expect to suffer.) A contradiction for sure, but what type? Consider the case for Contextual Contradiction. Perhaps the book of Proverbs was written for those who need encouragement… they need to know that it is worthwhile to follow God… keep on keeping on (a bit like the recipients of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament). The writers of Job and Ecclesiastes target the “Cat Theology” folk (utilizing the term used by Bob Sjogren and Gerald Robison)… those who follow a sort of Prosperity mindset… do good and get paid by God, do bad and be punished by God. This is the attitude of Job’s “friends.” Perhaps these people needed a (generally) more cynical, (philosophically) more Epicurean, and (honestly) more real-world view of how life is. It is possible that if the writers of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes were put into the same room, we would find that they agree with each other… just wrote differently because of different purposes and audiences. Or, perhaps there is a substantive difference in their believes. It is hard to tell. We will bring up Substantial Contradiction more later.

D.  Fundamental Contradictions. This is like substantial contradictions but adding that there is a basic disharmony in ethics and outlook. Returning to the American Football team illustration, the coach and the offensive coordinator are no longer on the same team. One is trying to win out over the other. This would be a fundamental contradiction. Some read Paul (saved by faith alone) as being in fundamental conflict or contradiction with James (faith without works is dead). I, personally, don’t see that at all. But these things are tough to determine because we really need to know what is going on in the minds of the writers… are they enhancing a complicated doctrine or are they undermining and attacking each other in terms of doctrine.  Some would argue that the Old Testament and the New Testament contradict each other on a fundamental level. However, since Jesus and the apostles make it clear that their goal is to “fulfill” the Old Testament… bringing into being what the OT hinted and predicted, they absolutely did NOT see themselves as contradicting on a fundamental level. Obviously, you might disagree with them… but again, they did not see themselves as part of a fundamental contradiction.

So does the Bible have contradictions? Let’s go through the types.

  • Formal Contradictions?  Absolutely. It would be hard to imagine a decent length of work that would not have contradictions of form. It is a normal and healthy characteristic of human language and communication.
  • Contextual Contradictions? Absolutely. One of the really awesome things about the Bible that is different from most “holy books” is its grounding in history and across history, and in culture and across cultures. The only way the Biblie could avoid contextual contradiction is if was written at one point in time to one culture. Thankfully for us, the Bible is multicultural so we can separate between cultural setting and message (again, unlike some other writings).
  • Substantial Contradictions? Maybe… let’s talk about this more.
  • Fundamental Contradictions? I am going to say “NO.” Yes, contradictions (like beauty) are in the eye(s) of the beholder(s). But to me all of the Bible directs people to God (ethically, doctrinally, and relationally). I don’t see anyone “playing for the other team.” I don’t see fundamental contradictions.

Okay, what about Substantial Contradictions. This really depends on your understanding of inspiration. If you believe that divine inspiration means that God is the author and individuals are simply the dictation machines (like claims that seem to be made by Mohammed or Joseph Smith) than Substantial Contradictions would be a problem. That is because such contradictions of substance come from God. But if inspiration gives freedom to the writer (under guidance of and editorship of God), real diversity of view is quite reasonable… as long as the purpose/aim is the same. If inspiration allows diverse writers to bring their personalities into it– genuine disagreement in small matters, but definitely “playing for the same team”– then substantial contradictions could exist and one is not forced to show that all of the contradictions are formal, contextual, or not contradictions at all.

So what does this have to do with missions? I would like to suggest that the issue of Contradiction (whether it be in the Bible, Quran, Book of Mormon, Bhagavad Gita, or any other work that claims divine nature or authorship) is a waste of time. It tends to lead to a cycle of subjective gainsaying. It is true that, for example, the Muslim claim of the Quran being eternally uncreated and transmitted through something akin to automatic recitation… makes it more open to critique regarding substantial contradictions. Still… if one does not see a contradiction, one will simply not see it. A healthier route is to appreciate and understand the contradictions. Sadly, labeling an issue as a contradiction shuts off the opportunity to learn and grow.

Ooooops! Some Mistakes I Have Made #3

Parable of the Talents
Parable of the Talents (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mistake #3.  The Challenges of Dependency, Paternalism, and Stewardship

One of the first things I learned in missions is the danger of paternalism. A missionary should not amass control others but empower others. Therefore, one should not pass on resources with a lot of strings attached.

I also learned that giving can create dependency… so there is a risk in providing resources. One should focus on helping people discover and utilize the resources they have.

But problems come up.

When we tried to give without strings attached, sometimes we got burned. We forgot that one of our roles is a steward and we are responsible also to our supporters. This risks of paternalism are there… but the risk doesn’t justify bad stewardship. There is a tough balance here. Too much control can cause problems. Too little control can cause problems.

We provided help to people in need… sometimes it helped and sometimes it did appear to create dependency. And yet, some people when they were helped would take off and soar. Again, there is a stewardship issue here. Just as in the parable of the talents, one needs to find out how the person responds to a little help. Some rise up and some fall down. Again, I learned I needed to provide a certain amount of oversight to mentor the person. Generally, it seems like giving long-term to a group results in dependency. However, giving to individuals can empower or debilitate… it depends on their character and the nature of the relationship between the supporter and the recipient.

I read books on the dangers of dependency and of paternalism. However, in the end, these have to be balanced with the need for stewardship as well as the need to be a source for empowerment.

Some successes and some failures… but always learning. But learning only through books has its drawback, because it often takes real life situations for one to discover the nuances of ministry that are not really covered in books.