The Hopeful Pessimist

I am a self-described pessimist. Some find this troubling… believing that optimism is healthier, and makes one happier. As a melancholic, I am not all that sure I want to be happier… I want contentment… I want peace,.. I want purpose… I want belongingness.  I think I can generally do with just a small bit of happiness most of the time.Mud Splat.jpg

But as a Christian, I often wonder whether pessimism is wholly consistent with my faith. Additionally, there are people who describe pessimism as another term for “realism.” That sounds more negative than I am, or want to be.

With that in mind, I decided to start reading Jurgen Moltmann’s book “The Theology of Hope.” I still have a long way to go in the book, but it emphasizes eschatology (the “study of last things”) as not so much a field of academic rigor, but a recognized hope that helps us interpret the past and especially the present.

This may sound strange, but one thing I like about this viewpoint is that it leaves room for an element of pessimism. Consider a quote of John Calvin on Hebrew 11:1, referred to by Moltmann:

“To us is given the promise of eternal life– but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us– meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous– and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness– but mean time we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things–yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst. What would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope, and if our heart did not hasten beyond this world through the midst of the darkness upon the path illumined by the word and Spirit of God!”

In other words we live in a world of suffering and injustice. Pessimism, then, is in a sense justifiable, a truly realistic and appropriate viewpoint much of the time. YET… as people of faith in Christ, we also have a divine hope– a hope that starkly contrasts and contests with the world we perceive.

Moltmann also quotes J.G. Hamann rhetorical question, “Who would form proper concepts of the present without knowing the future?” The future hope doesn’t just contrast with the present… It helps us understand the present.The present, likewise, drives us to hope.As a Christian… pessimism, expecting the worst rather than the best in the present and near future, may be well-founded anecdotally– perhaps even empirically… yet it is still not fully realistic. Quoting Moltmann directly this time:

“Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. It does not take things as they happen to stand or to lie, but as progressing, moving things with possibilities of change. Only as long as the world and the people in it are in a fragmented and experimental state which is not yet resolved, is there any sense in earthly hopes. The latter anticipate what is possible to reality, historic and moving as it is, and use their influence to decide the process of history. Thus hopes and anticipation of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities, and as such they set everything in motion and keep it in a state of change. Hope and the kind of thinking that goes with it consequently cannot submit to the reproach of being utopian, for they do not strive after things that have ‘no place’, but after things that have ‘no place as yet’ but can acquire one. On the other hand, the celebrated realism of the stark facts, of established objects and laws, the attitude that despairs of its possibilities and clings to reality as it is, is inevitably much more open to the charge of being utopian, for in its eyes there is ‘no place’ for possibilities, for future novelty, and consequently for the historic character of reality. Thus, the despair which imagines it has reached theend of its tether proves to be illusory, as long as nothing has yet come to an end but everything is still full of possibilities. Thus positivistic realism also proves to be illusory, so long as the world is not a fixed body of facts but a network of paths and processes, so long as the world does not only run according to laws but these laws themselves are also flexible, so long as it is a realm in which necessity means the possible, but not the unalterable.”

So what does this mean to me? Pessimism can take (at least) two flavors. One flavor is despairing or nihilistic. I remember a quote from the TV Show “Late Night With David Letterman” that stated “Life is a sucking, swirling, eddy of despair, bespeckled with brief glimmers of false hope in an ever-blackening universe.” Some pessimists are disappointed when good comes… They have come to not only expect, but appreciate, bad things occurring.

But another flavor of pessimism is hopeful. Such a person recognizes the failings, the flaws of the NOW, and anticipates these flaws, these ills, are pushing the world towards more misery and pain. Yet, as a Christian one is aware that God is committed to redemption of His children and His world. This commitment gives us hope and helps us to interpret the present from a less myopic perspective. That perspective does not eradicate pessimism… we still see the institutions and powers of this world that perpetuate sin and misery. In fact, a clear-eyed recognition of the NOW can better give us the heart that makes us all the more long for God, and to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

(By the way, I websearched the term “Hopeful Pessimist” and discovered that I am not alone. Perhaps I should feel good about that.  Or maybe not.)

Reflections on Power and Powerlessness

Spectrum of Power

I have struggled in my own heart and mind regarding the issue of Power and Powerlessness in the Christian Life and in Ministry. I have heard so many preachers who love to talk about receiving the POWER of God (and Yes, they will emphasize the term completely out of proportion to its value, in my opinion). It does not appear to be in line with the example of Christ who served and ministered in a fairly powerless fashion (at least powerless in terms of classic human power such as economic power, military power, and political power). On the other hand, in some ways, Jesus could be describe as possessing and exhibiting great power. That leaves me challenged on both sides.

Biblical: 

  • Positively. The Bible describes us as possessing and exercising great power. Luke’s version of the Great Commission, for example, notes this, as Jesus says: I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49.
  • Negatively. The Bible also describes the weakness of the faithful, and God appears to connect more with the weak, the powerless, than with those in power. Paul in I Corinthians 1:27 states, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” The epistle, and the other epistles of Paul seem to make the point that this weakness of those who follow Christ is more than a historical fact, but a state of being. As Ellicott’s commentary notes on this passage, “It has been well remarked, “the ancient Christians were, for the greater part, slaves and persons of humble rank; the whole history of the progress of the Church is in fact a gradual triumph of the unlearned over the learned, of the lowly over the great, until the emperor himself cast his crown at the foot of Christ’s cross” (Olshausen); or, as an English writer puts it, “Christianity with the irresistible might of its weakness shook the world.”

Missiological:

  • Positively.  The gospel of Christ has spread throughout the world borne on the back of political and economic power. A lot of wonderful things, such as hospitals and schools and such, have be built by missionaries coming in and exercising power.
  • Negatively. There has been a backlash to this sort of exercising of power. The connection of missions, on occasion, with colonial imperialism is still remembered by many, even where missionaries sided with the locally oppressed over the colonial oppressors. There have been calls, including by “missionary-receiving nations” to stop sending money. In many places, missionaries have assumed a position of coercive power over locals (even as acts of charity), and can create dependency. Because of this, Vulnerable Missions is becoming popularized. Truthfully, Vulnerable means functioning from a position of powerlessness— but some people are, wrongly I think, disturbed by the term “powerless.” Additionally, power encounter and emphasis on the attainment of power has borne, among other things, the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” a horrible misreading to God and God’s Word.

Cultural:

  • Positively.  Many people classify cultures as fitting into a triangle of social motivators with the vertices of:   Guilt/Forgiveness, Shame/Honor, and Fear/Power. While no culture is at an absolute extreme, most tend to be closer to one vertex over the other two. I live in the Cordillera mountain range in the Philippines. While Shame/Honor is important, the driving motivator for most is Fear/Power. As such, “Power Encounter” is very important and effective as an outreach method. (I am not from a Fear/Power culture. I can intellectually acknowledge this motivation, but emotionally I cannot relate to this motivation). If God works in all cultures and has a message that meets the primary needs of those in all cultures (Forgiveness and Honor for those driven by Guilt and Shame, for examples) then it is reasonable to accept that God’s power revealed is an appropriate answer to the Fear of people.
  • Negatively.  Historically, the answers of the Gospel exist in a state of contradiction. Forgiveness from God exists for Christians who still live in a state of deserving to feel guilty (both before man and God). Honor is given by God to those who still live in a state of shame with respect to the surrounding culture. And the power of God exists while Christians still live culturally in a state of powerlessness. In other words, God’s gift takes away the need, not the condition. God takes away the need to feel guilt although we are not guilt-free. God takes away the reason to feel shame although we may may be still viewed as shameful. God takes away our need for fear, but not necessarily fearful things from our lives. Additionally, while God works within a culture, God also challenges the culture, counter-culturally. Guilt-focused societies may praise the morally perfect, but God points us toward a different goal– sinful but grateful. Shame-focused societies may praise those who are highly esteemed in society, but God challenges this by pointing people to the poor (or poor in spirit), the mournful, the little ones, that which is thought foolish, and the humble as the truly honored before God. Fear-focused societies may praise those who are seen as powerful, having control over situations and people. But again, I think that God challenges this and points people towards Jesus who was a suffering servant, lowly, and humble… A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”

I think that part of the way of bringing this all together is to see power in terms of a spectrum. The spectrum at the top shows this. At one extreme, power is seen in terms of control and coercion. At the other end, it is seen in terms of ability to serve. That full range seems to be Biblical. The Greek word “dunamis” also can mean “Ability.” (Some note the connection between the word “dunamis” and “dynamite,” but the connection was in marketing. Dynamite provides no useful role in understanding the Koine Greek term “dunamis.”) In engineering, power refers to the rate of energy flow. “Energy” flow describes an essentially made up concept (that somehow manages to be useful) referring to the ability to do work. Power, then, is more tied to the ability to accomplish, than to mastery or control.

In the Luke passage, Jesus says to wait until they are clothed in power on high. One may take the “tongues of fire” on their heads as a somewhat literalistic answer to that. On the other hand, it can be seen more in terms of their sudden ability to serve God fearlessly, speaking God’s message in languages they did not know. Either interpretation seems sound, but classic human pictures of power would not be consistent with this event.

Likewise, Hebrews 11 describes doing great and mighty works through faith, yet it, equally, describes people succumbing to abuse and torture fearlessly (and in human terms, powerlessly) with those who accomplished the (“powerfully”) miraculous.

Conclusion

I am still a bit unresolved on this. The Bible says that the Jews seek a sign, while the Greeks seek wisdom. A sign often involves a visual manifestation of power. I don’t think that can be overlooked… it was a cultural need. I relate more with the Greek culture. I seek wisdom (and peace).

However, since power in and of itself is morally neutral, the exercise of power is morally ambiguous, a temptation for great evil as well as the ability to do great good.

Biblically, I believe that power is tied more to ability and servanthood than to mastery, control, and the miraculous. That is not to say that it is fully to the extreme (to the left side). But, when in doubt, Divine power is more tied to what the world sees as powerless. It seems like the church has been strongest when it has embraced its own powerlessness— fearlessly. Christian leadership is to be Servant Leadership… servant leadership not simply as a buzzword, but a lifestyle.

Because of this, the power of God as a concept should be tied to, and perhaps even be subordinate to, our call to be faithful, able, and humble servants of God.

 

Doing Local Theology

I have been doing a lot of thinking about Contextualized Theology, and reading works by Stephen Bevans,  Paul Hiebert, Jose de Mesa et al. But I think I will use the term Local Theology here, since (REALLY) all theology is contextual. There is no such thing as supracultural theology. God works in and through cultures, and God’s message is translatable into different languages and cultures (while still challenging and being challenged by these same languages and cultures).

This is a snapshot of where I am as far as doing local theology.

Source of Local Theology

Local Theology comes both from God and the Local Church or Community of Faith. It is based on God’s message to the people relevant to the people’s unique needs and longings. As such, local theology does not come from Outside, and should not normally come from one single person. Local Theology forms reflectively within the community of faith, rather than driven by the agenda of one. The community of faith should always be taken more seriously than any single “prophet.”

Local Theology is commonly driven by the failure of outside theologies to address deep personal struggles. Theological Bridge

I have theorized on “Tago ng Tago” Theology… the theology of Illegal Aliens. I have suggested that theologies today commonly don’t address the primary needs and concerns of illegal aliens. Many, in fact, would say that theology should NOT address their concerns since they are breaking the law. They should obey the law, leave, and then they don’t need a separate theology. However, it is risky to say that God has no message for a people group because they have been disenfranchised by a group in power. It is also risky to say that God has no message for people who are imperfect in some manner of thought or behavior. That includes, after all, all of us. Regardless, the Bible, for example, has many metaphors and stories that speak to people who are strangers in a strange land, in need of a God as their refuge and hiding place.

The unique needs of a community of faith, a local church, drives the need for a local theology. Additionally, if God is at work in all places, at all times, in all cultures, and in all communities of the faithful, it must be understood that God is a primary source of a local theology in addition to providing special revelation. Local theology (contextualized theology) is a bridge that connects God’s message with the context of a people.

The “Steps” or Challenges of Local Theology

Not all local theologies are good theologies. The Philippines has many bad ones… both popular and unpopular. When is a local theology a bridge between a community of faith and God’s message, and when is it a bridge to heterodoxy? There are certain tests or steps or challenges that the theology must pass. Challenges for Local Theology

A.  Foundational is the Tests of Divinity. If the theology fails to connect us with the God Who Is, then there is a fundamental flaw with it.

God is revealed to us through both Special Revelation (God’s Word, and Jesus Christ) and through General Revelation (primarily His Creation). Is the local theology coherent and harmonious with God’s Word as canon (or standard)? Does it honor God’s Word as His special self-revelation to the church (and the world)? Does it understand God’s creation as good and to be honored as His special design with us as stewards? Does it honor all humans as created beings in God’s image? Does it see God as personal, relational, communicative, and worthy of honor and worship?

B. The next challenge is the Tests of Community. This is seen as the tests of the local church and the universal church.

Ideally, the local theology comes from the local church. Regardless, is it understandable by the local community of faith? Is it accepted by the local community of faith? Does the theology resonate with their own condition? Or, on the other hand, does it “scratch where it does not itch?”

Additionally, is it open for critique from the greater church? The greater church exists in both time and space. Is the local theology open to dialogue with the broader church throughout history? Or does it particularize itself from other churches, ignoring the challenge and unity of others today? Or does it embrace a restorationist viewpoint that ignores the wisdom of the church in history? For the church to have unity (rather than uniformity) in its diversity, then there should be dialogue and openness to critique beyond itself.

C.  The Final Challenge is the Tests of Tension. A local theology is not simply to be a set of beliefs that justify the status quo or the local culture. If it is rooted both in God and in Culture, it must exist in creative tension with the local culture. It must provide a prophetic voice for maintaining what is good, and redeeming or transforming what is bad.

Tension should also exist with the Universal Church. While recognizing unity with the church in both time and space, it should also provide a voice of challenge to it. Additonally, it should also be a challenge to God’s message… not challenging the canon itself… but its interpretation.

A local theology that does not challenge the local church, the universal church, and the interpretation of God’s revelation, has nothing to say from God to His church.

Any failure in these challenges should, at least, draw into question the veracity or orthodoxy of the local theology.

Final Thoughts on Local Theology

Some people get bothered by the idea of local theology. Some seek to universalize their own theological position. I have heard Reformed Theologians and Pentecostal Theologians seek to describe a universal (or universalizing or global) theology. This is flawed to the core. Theology is always applied locally (since wherever a community of faith is, that is its local context)… thus the question is really whether the theology of the community is well-suited to be applied locally… or not.

For example, I live in Baguio City, Philippines. It is a city of dreams and of broken relationships. It is a city of dreams since people from the mountains and from the lowlands flock here because there is money and jobs here (it is the center of tourism, medicine, and education in the Northern Philippines). People leave their homes to come here to achieve their dreams, or as a transitional point to be trained to ultimately achieve their dreams in some other place (usually another country).

Baguio City is a city of broken relationships. People leave their families and communities to come here to be educated or to work. Even families that are here in Baguio City are broken up as multiple family members serve as Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) to earn money to send home. Additionally, the number of broken families here is very high due to “divorce” (divorce is “illegal” here, except for what is called annulment, but the number of common-law divorces is huge). The number of fully intact nuclear families is low, and intact extended families in Baguio are extremely rare (especially for the Philippines).

So, what is God’s message for a community of broken families in a country that is known for being family-centered? Who is God for someone in Baguio? What does the church need to be in a place such as Baguio?

 

Suffering and Viktor Frankl

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE HOLOCAUST

I am not an expert on Theodicy, on suffering and its underlying meaning (or underlying lack of meaning). That being said, churches (especially the safe and affluent churches, but even the persecuted and vulnerable churches at times) have trouble with suffering.  It seems to me that part of the problem is that the church (we in the church) fail to deal with the complexity of this issue as presented in the Bible. There seems to be three general “strands” of thought in the Bible that are intertwined or braided into something not meant to be separated. It seems to me the church fails when it seeks to follow one strand and ignore the other two.

Strand One:  The Universality of Suffering. Genesis 3 and Ecclesiastes are the most obvious examples, but one can find it elsewhere. It is common to all, both good and bad, and as such, may have no ethical or redemptive “meaning.” Suffering Happens.

Strand Two:  Suffering is due to the Sinner. Suffering can be the result of specific sinful actions by specific sinful sinners. A person may suffer because of his own sin, or being sinned against by others. As such, God punishes the evildoer, and rewards or vindicates the righteous. Deuteronomy and Proverbs are the two strongest examples of this.

Strand Three:  Suffering is due to Faithfulness. Suffering can also be the anticipated result of faithfulness to God. Job, I Peter, and much of the Gospels support this strand.

Of course, if one embraces all three strands, there are challenging implications to the church:

  1.  When we see a person suffering, we should not be quick to judge. Perhaps we should not judge at all. But if suffering is universal/meaningless, or due to sin, or due to faithfulness, it is ill-advised to presume only one and ignore the possibility of the others.
  2. Suffering should not automatically be avoided. Jesus was described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and calls us to suffer with him. This does not mean one necessarily should be seeking to find suffering and then to wallow in it. But I think it does mean that the paths of the righteous are likely to take us both to green pastures and still waters, and through the valley of the shadow of death. It may well be that the former is the hope, but the latter is the norm.

With this in mind, here is a sizable quote from Viktor Frankl in his work, Man’s Search for Meaning (Part One). It describes finding meaning in a German Concentration Camp in World War II. It is not Christian Theology or written by a Christian. Sadly, many who were causing the unjust suffering would describe themselves as Christians. However, he speaks of “Life” in a metaphoric fashion that in some places can seem to mean “God,” or in other places, “the path/s that God has ordained.”

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.

Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn out backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, “Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!”(How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of “getting through suffering” as others would talk of “getting through work.” There was plenty of suffering for us to get through.

Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that. Shamefacedly some confessed occasionally that they had wept, like the comrade who answered my question of how he had gotten over his oedema, by confessing, “I have wept it out of my system.”

The Mutable, Passible God

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, God is “without body, parts, or passions, immutable.”

216aacc

Immutable, Impassible

As a Baptist, I am supposed to be non-Creedal, and don’t particularly value catechisms. That is, we adhere to Soli Scriptura, the Bible alone (although I believe it is more accurate to say Prima Scriptura), and as such we place little importance on creeds. Still creeds can have value to encapsulate Scripture in ways that are memorable. They also help to connect us to the thread of church history.

But, on the other hand, creeds fail when they provide doctrine that is inconsistent with the Bible, or when they describe a god of the creed developers’ imaginations rather than the “God who is.”

To me, two of the most obvious examples are in this one little part of the Westminster Confession.  It says that God is without Body (regardless of what Mormons may say, this appears to be well-founded Scripturally), without Parts (frankly, this is open to challenge as well… but I won’t focus on it), without passions (impassible) and immutable.

These last two appear to be drawn more from Aristotle and some Islamic philosophers than it draws from the Bible. There are passages from Scripture that talk about his “unchangingness” such as Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, and  Hebrews 6:17. However, it all of these cases the context is ethical in nature: God keeps his promises no matter what. In contrast to this is that the God of the Bible interacts with people, God interacts historically. God’s eschatological actions challenge at least the most extreme views of immutability.

The Bible says that God on occasion changes His mind. What does that mean? I don’t know. Some say it is anthropomorphic language that means little regarding God’s nature. Some others may say that it describes contingent planning rather than actual changing (For example if I decide to talk to ask Joseph a question, and that if he says “A” I will do “X” and if he says “B” I will do “Y” that is not really changing my mind.) Maybe it means that God does indeed change (volitionally, not ethically).

In my mind, however, the big issue is that the Bible is written describing a personal God that changes His mind, and adjusts actions historically. It seems to me that this portrayal of God just might be His act of self-revelation rather than self-concealment.

<Note: Accepting a mutable God does not force one into full Process Theology or Open Theism. The truth is rarely at the extremes anyway.>

More important than the Immutability of God (which almost seems like a historical straw man to knock down every few decades) is the question of the Impassibility of God. While some have suggested that this attribute means that God does not have emotions (emotions being anthropomorphic, like passages that describe God as having eyes, arms, and wings), for most, the attribute means that God is not overwhelmed by His emotions.

As Theopedia.com would say, “not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions.”

This appears to me to be heresy. I know it is ill-advised to use such a term lightly. But there are at least four reasons that the impassibility of God appears to be false and bumping up against heresy.

  • Jesus was highly passionate in the Gospels, and there is more than one occasion that He seemed to be overwhelmed by emotions (the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cross are the two most obvious examples). Some might argue that since Jesus did not change His actions due to his emotions, He was not truly overwhelmed. To me, that speaks more of his ETHICAL immutability than His impassibility. If Jesus would be described as not being overwhelmed by emotions, than many of us come pretty close to impassible by the same measure. But if Jesus could be said to be overwhelmed by His emotions, then Trinitarian theology compels us to say that impassibility is a most doubtful attribute of God. The most common emotion Jesus is described to have is that he was compassionate… that itself is a challenge to God being impassible.
  • The Bible describes God as emotional in so many different passages and in so many different ways. God’s Wrath, the Joy of God, His Love. When one ties that with the concept of the Imago Dei, it seems reasonable to think that perhaps our limbic system (our seat of basic emotions and mood) is designed by God as such, in part, as a biochemical analogue to God’s emotional character. If the love is viewed so strongly in the Bible as to lead John to say that “God is love,” one must wonder if our emotions point more to our aspect of divinity rather than dirt.
  • Theodicy is that aspect of theology that wrestles with why there is suffering in the world. There are many theories, but the one that seems most Biblical and satisfying to me (and some others I have seen) is that God suffers with us in our suffering. As such, it seems more theologically sound to describe God as Empathic rather than Impassible.
  • John 3:16. This passage describes God as loving the world so much that He sacrificed His own Son for our benefit. This seems to be the very definition of being overwhelmed by emotion. It is hard to see what behavior would demonstrate being “more overwhelmed” by emotion than this.

Our theology should be based on the Bible, the character of Jesus, and of God’s working in history. We really shouldn’t be looking to Aristotle or or the Quran for insight into the nature of God. Perhaps we can say that God is Ethically Immutable, but not Immutable overall. I think we should see God as Empathic rather than Impassible. And perhaps above all, God is Ineffable. Some day, prayerfully, we will truly know Him, for we will see Him as He truly is.

The Taxidermic Minister

fox-and-pheasant-001

I come from a rural community in upstate New York in the United States. It is not known for its art culture. However, one art form that is quite strong there is taxidermy. I haven’t really seen it practiced here in the Philippines. For those who don’t know, it is the art of making the skins of animals resemble living animals by stuffing them and placing them on a frame. The etymology is from the greek for “Arranged Skins.” Those who are especially adept are able to produce artwork that looks like it is alive. While some simply mount the heads on a wall, many prefer to make the full animal (whether mammal, bird, or other) “come alive.” The true artist (taxidermist) can make the art look:

  • Real
  • Alive
  • With personality
  • In an appropriate setting for the animal

Of course, that is what makes it art, because:

  • It is not real. Underneath the dead hide is wood, foam, stuffing, or other materials.
  • It is not alive, and most of its components were not even part of the animal.
  • It has no personality. It’s eyes and mouth are fake, and its posture is attained through proper framing.
  • The setting (a branch for example) is as fake as the rest… to give the illusion of being in the wild, when it is actually in someone’s house… or perhaps a museum.

This art form can, in fact, be quite beautiful. It can also be comforting. Some people will have their dearly departed pet “stuffed” to keep with them always.

This reminds me of Revelation 3 in the description of the Church of Sardis. Jesus through John states that the church has the “reputation on being alive” but is, in fact, dead. The term “reputation” means “named” or “labelled.” But another way of saying it is that the church  presents all appearances of being alive, and yet isn’t. One might call this a “Taxidemic Church.”

I want to think about Taxidermic Ministers, whether pastors, missionaries, or layministers. Appearing alive, and not dead in ministry is not that hard.

  1.  Anyone raised up in a church culture learns how to behave to be recognized as being alive in that culture. Sometimes we talk about “cultural Christians” as people who describe themselves as Christians, but live on the periphery of the church and (perhaps) lack saving faith. But the second part (living on the periphery of the church) is presumptive. A Christian who lacks saving faith are often deeply embedded in the church. They are connected through decades of habits to the church culture. They can play church as good as, or better, than anyone else.
  2. Seminary indoctrinates the future minister in how to give the appearance of a vibrant spiritual life. What to say in different occasions, the proper theological and biblical lingo, the denominationally appropriate expressions of proclamation, worship, exaltation, and piety— all give false indication of vitality.
  3. The ministry culture establishes fairly clear expectations for the minister. By “listening” to these expectations and carrying them out, a minister learns not only how to “talk the talk” but how to “walk the walk” in the eyes of those around them.

And yet they are dead. They may be dead spiritually… having no faith… or having “lost the faith.” There have been articles of pastors who were, or became atheists. Despite this, they maintained their roles in ministry. Hardly surprising. Most of us, at one time or another, have worked for a company or a person that we don’t respect (or at least don’t believe in their vision). It is highly demotivating. However, a paycheck and other perks can help considerably  Some ministers reach a point in which their relationship to their ministry culture is so enmeshed that employment outside of ministry is unlikely, or at least scary.

Some are not spiritually dead (referring here to faith) but are emotionally dead. This can occur through psychophysical burnout. Elijah (running to Mount Horeb) or Jesus (going to Gethsemene) appear relevant examples. I think it can also happen as one loses “one’s first love” (as mentioned of the Ephesian church). Some have drifted from service as worship to service as duty.

This last one is part of my problem with the common evangelical doctrine of “calling.” People have told me that to go into ministry, one must have a “clear sense of God’s unique calling to professional ministry.” Additionally, if someone is considering getting out of such ministry, others will tell them that they are “rejecting their calling.” I have problems with this for two reasons. First, it is doubtful from a Biblical standpoint. In the Bible, all Christians are called to ministry… and “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (I Timothy 3:1) regardless of whether the church, ultimately calls the person to this role. This common understanding of “calling” seems to have deeper roots in the Catholic sacrament of “Holy Orders” than in the Bible.

Secondly, however, this understanding of calling leads to dejection and burnout. A minister is struggling with faith, priorities, vision, burnout, and such, and the “calling” card is tossed on the table essentially saying, “Too late now… you are stuck.” No one should minister because they feel trapped.

How can one identify a “taxidermic minister”? There can be obvious signs of burnout or hypocrisy… but not all may show it. Some people feel that they have special discernment to identify the spiritual strength of another. Usually, I suspect, this is more hubris than anything else. (I recall a lady coming to Baguio claiming the ability to identify the hidden sins of others. I recall her telling a teenage boy that his secret sin had to do with “sex.” Not exactly a difficult guess… and I assume it was a guess, since I can’t see why God would give out such a useless, and a bit pharisaic, gift anyway.) The skill of a minister to have the reputation of being alive, while being dead, is akin to the artistic competence of a taxidermist to make his art to make what is dead appear alive.

However, allowing ministers to “be real” in ministry rather than put on the garb (arranged skins) of culturally mandated piety and unique holiness, could help. Recognizing calling as a path of following Christ that all of us share, not just a unique vocational group, couldn’t hurt either. We are ALL on the same pilgrimage with Christ.

If the church can recognize that every self-reflective, honest person struggles with faith, including ministers, I believe we would do much better in helping all process it. I recall a time years ago when I struggled with my faith. I was able to resolve it by recognizing that faith is NOT blind trust, and that doubt is NOT antithetical to faith. My honest struggling with faith, has greatly strengthened my faith. I am glad I found resources where I could deal with these doubts without castigation.

 

 

 

 

Power to Help and Hurt

I have recently been reading a book by Daniel Bagby, “The Church: The Power to Help and to Hurt.” What a great title!  It is a book on pastoral care, and so emphasizes the fact that the church can be a place of holistic healing, but also a place that can destroy lives. This paradox is founded on the dual character of the church– it’s divine and human aspects.bagby

And, one could add, its divine and human empowerment.

This has long been my problem with people in church (especially, although equally true of those outside of the church) who crave power, who pray for power, who joyously talk about how we all can, and should, have more power (whether that power is “spiritual,” material, or otherwise).

The basic problem is Power’s essential ambiguity.

  • Power from a good source can be utilized by another for evil purpose.
  • Power from a good source can be utilized by another for a good purpose.
  • Power from a bad (or neutral source) can be used by another for evil purpose
  • …and yes… Power from a bad (or neutral source) can be used by another for a good purpose (the crucifixion of Christ is an obvious example).

Having power, whether it be as a materially wealthy person, or as a person in political office, or as a preacher in church, or as an employer of others, is a great challenge and temptation to most. In fact, few people can handle responsibly the power they already have… to say nothing of handling more. The Spiderman dictum applies: “With great power comes great responsibility” or as Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  (Other variations on this theme is HERE)

Sometimes in missions, one has reflective moments:  “What could I do, if I was donated a million dollars for ministry?” At times I had to admit that I did not know. At other times, I had clear ideas. But I also have to reflect on the very real possibility that such a gift would ruin my life. To handle what one is not ready to handle can lead to all sorts of problems: personal, relational, spiritual, legal.

It seems to me that it is good NOT to pray for power. Some may point out that Jabez (as in that Jabez associated with “The Prayer of Jabez”) asked to have his boundaries extended… a form of power. Presumably, he was deemed responsible by God to handle more power, or else that would have been a curse, not a blessing.

I would suggest then, “Don’t Pray for Power.” Rather, “Pray to Handle Rightly the Power One Already Has.”