Missions and Theology Chapter

Years ago, I started a book on Missions Theology— 2016, I think. But in 2017, I stopped. Then I worked on a couple of other books on missions, gutting some parts of this book. But then I started to work again on it during this pandemic. I am mostly done. Here is a rough draft of Chapter 11.

Note: I have not added footnotes yet. I don’t want to appear to be violating proper attribution. With that in mind, I would point people to Stephen Bevan’s book “Models of Contextualization,” Paul Hiebert’s article, “Critical Contextualization,” and David Tracy’s book, “Plurality and Ambiguity.” Pretty much everything else is from one of my books or from this website.

————————————————————————-

Methods of Contextualizing Theology

Paul Hiebert, in his article “Critical Contextualization” <FN> speaks of three forms of contextualization— Non-Contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization. Critical Contextualization can be viewed as the healthy balance between the other two. Non-Contextualization essentially brings in the missionary’s own theology and beliefs without separating them— implicitly treating them equally as true. This leads to a foreignness to Christianity, and often simply pushes traditional beliefs under the thin veneer of Christian dogma. Uncritical Contextualization assimilates too well with the local beliefs, losing its prophetic characters. This leads to a form of syncretism. I would argue that Non-contextualization also leads to a form of syncretism, but being the uncritical mixing of God’s message with the missionary’s culture rather than the respondents’ culture.

Figure 11. Critical Contextualization

Figure 11 shows these three categories in terms of a pendulum that can swing to one extreme or another. Perhaps a failure in this figure is that it could be interpreted to suggest that the most likely place to end up is in the middle. However, it is probably that the most likely place to end up is at one of the extremes. In both of these extremes, the message may be seen as irrelevant. For Non-contextualization, it is irrelevant because it answers the concerns and ideas of the missionary’s culture, not that of the respondent culture. For Uncritical Contextualization, it may be culturally relevant in the sense that it connects to the beliefs and symbols of the culture, but is irrelevant since it fails to challenge or instruct.

In between is Critical Contextualization which seeks to combine

  • Taking the concerns of the respondent culture seriously
  • Looking at the respondent culture sympathetically
  • Studying the Bible carefully and thoughtfully

This sort of process can be quite helpful in general, but still leaves a lot of uncertainty when it comes to developing a localized theology. One question is, in fact, who does the localization? Is it the missionary? Is it the new believer’s in the respondent culture? In the next chapter, the tests for good contextual theology suggests that the ideal is that new congregations of the respondent culture should develop their own theology, but with critique from the outside. Such an ideal, however, does not always occur. Quite often the most rigorous defenders and transmitter’s of the missionary’s theology are new believers in the respondent culture. And often those who go against the grain and promote their own form of theology in the culture often are not drawing from the culture, but a conflicting external theology. Here in the Philippines, I know many pastor-theologians who have embraced a sort of “Youtube Theology.” By this I mean that they say, in effect, “I saw this thing on the internet, and it changed my life.” Is it good? Maybe. Is it bad? Probably. Is it local? Almost certainly not.

So how do theologies localize? Stephen Bevans has helped greatly in understanding contextualization of theology by describing 6 major categories of philosophies of contexualization.

Translation

Countercultural

Synthetic (Intertraditional)

Transcendental

Praxis

Anthropological

This book won’t try to describe in detail these categories. Partly, this is because one that I STRONGLY recommend you read Bevan’s book yourself, if you haven’t already.. <FN HERE> One may also find value in reading Moreau’s book that expands on Bevan’s ideas, but from a more Evangelical Christian perspective (Since Bevan’s is Roman Catholic). For me, the greatest value of Moreau’s book is not his model of contextualization, which seems a bit cluttered to me. Rather, the value is his recognition that the six models identified by Bevans should be seen as all having some value within Evangelical Christianity. In other words, instead of asking “Which one is correct” it is better to ask what strengths and weaknesses do each bring to the table for Evangelical Christians.

That’s important, as one of the models, Countercultural Model is sometimes described as “Biblical” or “Prophetic” Contextualization. These labels seek to suggest that it is “more Biblical” or more in line with God than other methods. I like to avoid that. The same thing happens in Pastoral Counseling where a number of different writers describe their own flavor of pastoral or spiritual counseling as “Biblical Counseling.” If a form of counseling or contextualization does not stand up on its own merits, it certainly isn’t improved by calling it Biblical. A better idea is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different methods and see what can be gained from these methods.

One can picture a triangle with God’s Revelation being at one corner, Human Culture at a second corner, and Self at the third corner, we may see each of these categories as inhabiting a range (locus) on the triangle. This is because none of these categories are static or tightly defined. Each identifies a range of perspectives. However, on Figure 12, instead of trying to identify a range, a number is placed in an area that I feel comes close to where that range would be centered.

Translation Model is seen as the one that seeks to stay closest to God’s revelation. One seeks to translate God’s message as faithfully as possible to a new culture. This seems to make the most sense to Evangelical Christians. It just sounds like what one is supposed to do. It may be seen as the one that is most faithful to God’s revelation. But this may not be true. The book of Acts addressed multiple opportunities for theological contextualization. These include (1) expressing the nature of God and Jesus to philosophers in Athens, (2) the nature of Greeks joining the church, and (3) the question of eating food sacrificed to idols. In none of these cases, does it appear to me that a translation form of contextualization apply. Translation can be done well or poorly, but if done poorly, it is more likely to lead toward slipping to Non-contextualization in Figure 11.

The Anthropological Model approach takes more seriously the culture in which the theology must be utilized. Frankly, this also makes sense. As noted in Chapter 1, Still, looking at the three examples from the book of Acts, it doesn’t seem like this method was used either. Paul did not ignore the controversial topic of resurrection with the philosophers, the Jerusalem council did not overlook the problem of sexual sin so common in Greek culture, and Paul did not overlook the inappropriateness of Christians worshiping idols. Still, theology is a bridge between God’s revelation and Man’s culture, how can one contextualize to a culture unless one focuses on that particular culture? Done poorly, there is a tendency to fall into Uncritical Contextualization as shown in Figure 11.

In some ways, Translation and Anthropological categories can be seen as opposite, but ideally the differences are slight. Suppose one is seeking to contextualize the Gospel to Omani culture, then Translation seeks to make the message of God understandable to produce Christians who are Omanis. The Anthropological Model seeks essentially the same thing, but with greater emphasis on the culture, it could perhaps be thought of as creating Omanis who are Christian. In theory the two goals (Omani Christians and Christian Omanis) are the same but the switching of nouns and adjectives can be seen to suggest a difference in primary identification. For Translation, the people are, perhaps, Christian first and Omani second. For Anthropological, the people are, again perhaps, Omani first and Christian second. Done will, however, the differences should not be major.

So, if the Translation Model comes closest to focus on God’s Revelation, and the Anthropological Model comes closest on the recipient culture, then the Transcendental Model comes closest to the “Individual Reflection” corner.

Figure 12. Contextualization Models for Theology

Transcendental Model is more of a form of personal theological reflection. Chapter 3 speaks of theology as a reflective activity. However, individual or group theological reflection can be given greater or lesser focus from one tradition to another. Some seminaries, for example, encourage theological reflection, while others focus more on theological indoctrination. For Transcendental contextualization, one looks at Scripture or theology or religious practice in terms of how one reacts, emotionally, to it. One reflects on the reaction, whether positive or negative. This sort of reflection is similar to many other forms of individual theological reflection. It is iterative and process driven. The process is supposed to give opportunity to address theological issues through the lens of context. This for theological contextualization is essentially that broader application of David Tracy’s Transcendental Theological Reflection. <FN>

The Individual Reflection corner, seems to be more individualistic. That can be a bad thing. It can also be seen as potentially disconnected from God’s revelation AND respondent culture. Again, however, it depends on how it is put into practice. An advantage of this reflective process is that one does take time to address one’s own prejudices. Ignoring prejudices does not make them go away. It just makes them not dealt with. Further, it seems like it is quite beneficial both for a missionary in a new culture, and a young believer in a new reached culture.

The Praxis Model is also more towards the individual reflection corner. Like the transcendental model, it is iterative and reflective. The cycle is action and reflection. This is especially popularized in Liberation Theologies. In these theologies, the emphasis is on action prior to reflection (ignoring whether this is even possible). Many Liberation Theologies utilize a Marxist framework in terms of the reflection. That, however, is not universal. For an Evangelical, one can use God’s Word as the primary canon, rather than a historical materialism.

The Countercultural Model seems to have more than one flavor. Some see it as the most “conservative” being the closest to being prone to Non-contextualization (referring again to Figure 11). To me when one is going so far in that direction, one is actually moving more towards the Translation Model. Counterculture IS NOT the same as Anti-cultural,

To me, this model focuses more on the idea of “good scandal,” which will be covered in greater detail in the next chapter. Jesus was A contextual theology should feel natural and normal to the culture it serves, and yet should prophetically challenge that same culture in key ways. This seems the best understanding of countercultural. In most cases, what are considered countercultures are sub-cultures of a broader culture that fits into that culture in MOST ways, but diverges in a small number of key ways.

The Synthetic Model can be thought as referring to Intertraditionality. It honors different perspectives and allows them to interact dialogically to come up with a synthesis of perspectives. Truthfully, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really fit into the triangle chart at all. But if it did, it seems like putting it in the center would be accurate, at least to the extent that one takes different sources without focusing on any one over the other. A clear strength of this is that it does promote dialogue between different perspectives and different peoples.

Missions Theology

You may have noticed that this book is about Missions Theology, but in this chapter we are talking about the methodology of theology development, outside of Missions Theology. So where does Missions Theology fit in?

Missions Theology is a Practical Theology which means that it is always going to be iterative, relating experience actions and experience to God’s word and one’s own faith tradition. As such it aligns somewhat with the Praxis Model. However, the reflection is likely to be different than that of Liberation Theologies, for example. Very commonly, it seems to me, the reflection stage in the process for many in missions is almost strictly pragmatic. They use what I sometimes jokingly describe as “Engineering Ethics.” (I used to be a Mechanical Engineer, so it makes sense to me.) There is a real topic known as Engineering Ethics, but when I am using the term here, what I mean is, “That which works is good and that which doesn’t work is bad.”

But pure pragmatics doesn’t make good Missions Theology. If Missions is, first of all, the activity of God to which we are invited to join, then our theology and actions must be aligned to both the will and activity of God. There is a fairly popular form of churchplanting that actively discourages ministering to the physicaly, psychoemotional, economic, and social needs of people. (I might even argue that it discourages ministering to the spiritual needs as well.) The reason is that it slows down evangelism and church multiplication. In my mind, this is an excellent example of justifying a theology because “it works” even if it is in conflict to God’s work and will. Part of the reflection must be based on God’s revelation.

But Missions Theology must also explicitly deal with culture. I don’t believe one can honestly have a sound Missions Theology that does not address culture seriously. With that in mind, one must also reflect on the activity through the framework of culture. Perhaps a way to look at it is in terms of the Action-Reflection cycle in chapter 3, but with three points rather than two.

Figure 13. Missions Theology Process

Summary

Early on in this book, it was stated that all theology is contextual and contexts are dynamic. As such, theology can and should change. While change is necessary, not all change is good. Wise people do disagree as to the process by which theology should change. That being said, in general, one can say that good theology must be true to God’s Word, take seriously the context, and involve a process of intentional iterative reflection.

Lilias Trotter and the Will of God

I finally had a chance to watch the documentary “Many Beautiful Things.” It is on the life of Lilias Trotter. She was a missionary of the early 1900s in Algeria. I connect with the story. Like me, she was a missionary who was not sent out by a traditional mission agency or society. But I suppose the differences far outweigh the similarities. She was a missionary who had potential for great fame as an artist but chose obscurity in a very dry and barren (literally and metaphorically) mission field. Curiously, because of the documentary and the research of Miriam Huffman Rockness, Lilias Trotter has gained a considerable posthumous fame. It is possible that in the years ahead her fame may eclipse John Rushkin, the one who was trying to develop her to be a reknowned painter. While I have long been familiar with John Rushkin, today he is far from a household name. Time will tell.

I strongly recommend perusing the website, www.liliastrotter.com. It has lots of resources including the documentary.

The question in the documentary was whether she had made the right choice. Was it better to embrace her gift or embrace her sense of calling. Or maybe her gifting was evidence of her true calling. There is a bit of a similarity here with the story of Eric Liddell (“Chariots of Fire”), where his gifting as a runner appeared to be at odds with his desire to serve as a missionary.

For some people, the answer is simple. One must accept God’s Call no matter what. But recognizing God’s Calling is… challenging. I have seen people go into missions who I was pretty sure should never go into missions. On a few occasions, things seemed to work out for good (I can easily be wrong) but other times I felt that my concerns were confirmed. I don’t believe that God’s Call is only one way. That is, God’s Call is not always towards formalized mission work or ministry. God’s call could theoretically be to be a great painter, or a great runner. I was an Officer in the US Navy, and then later a Mechanical Design Engineer. I think it safe to say that I was not meant to spend my adult years in the military, but I am not so sure regarding civilian engineering. In college I talked to a missionary about my uncertainties of missions or engineering. He believed that God can call people to engineering as much as He may call people to missions. The important thing is to serve God faithfully whatever was one’s vocation. I spent the next 19 years of my life pursuing engineering, and then I went into missions. The change of path does not necessarily mean my first path was wrong. And if my first path was right, it doesn’t necessarily mean my later change was wrong. God’s calling is a path, not a destination.

I like the documentary “Many Beautiful Things” because it doesn’t really give answers. That Ms. Trotter’s desire to establish a “visible church” in Algeria did not happen (until decades after her passing) may draw into question her calling. Or maybe it doesn’t. It is for us to decide. It is like the movie Silence (2016) that asks serious questions about Christian missions, without giving trite answers. I enjoy the movie Candle in the Dark, on the life of William Carey. It spoke of his many struggles along the way. But it ended with a seeming pronouncement of victory. Carey chose the right path after all. But things are not that simple… even for William Carey.

Trite answers abound. The poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost has often been used to support the idea that one must choose the path that the crowds ignore. It suggests a certain praise of individualism, or perhaps following God. But then I heard people say that it meant the opposite. It really did not matter which path is taken. However, when I read the poem again, I felt it said neither. Each path goes in different directions. The poet later will interpret his life as being radically changed by that choice— but there is no way to verify this because it is impossible to go back and try the other path. In the end, we don’t know. We cannot know the results of paths not chosen.

Did Lilias Trotter make the right choice? What about Eric Liddell, or Fr. Rodrigues (in Silence), or John Rushkin, or myself? Did we make the right or wrong decisions? Did we follow the will of God or not?

I believe that I have. I have felt God’s sustaining grace along the way. I have seen good things happen in our work here. But is that proof? No. Lilias Trotter had at best only modest success in missions. Eric Liddell’s life was cut short, in part, because of missions. It is possible that my wife and I could have had greater impact if we stayed as engineer and nurse in the US. We don’t know.

But God is faithful in our uncertainty. We don’t know what happens on alternative paths. We are not supposed to know. We are to seek God the best we can, and follow Him as best we know how.

Faithfully following God, as uncertain and tentative that following may be is the important thing, “And,” quoting Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.”

The Magi and The Preparation for the Gospel

Praeparatio Evangelica, or preparation for the Gospel, is a term used referring to the belief that God has sown seeds of the gospel message in other cultures that will only fully bear fruit with the arrival of the message of Bible. Don Richardson believes that redemptive analogies, stories or images within a culture that express in some way the Christian gospel message, is a form of this preparation of the Gospel. With this thought, redemptive analogies are discovered rather than created.

This point can be questioned. The Bible uses Roman adoption as a redemptive analogy. Does this mean that God created the adoption process within that culture so as to provide a way of expressing an honor-shame redemptive analogy to contrast the guilt-innocence redemptive analogy associated with the Roman justice system (which then was also created by God)? Still there are missionary stories of redemptive analogies within a culture that seem too good to be accidents. More broadly, can truths in other religions be said to have been created by God to prepare for the full gospel, or should they be seen as man-made expressions of human longings that can be used as bridges for the gospel.

Rowan Williams speaks of the Magi in terms of the how other faiths can serve as a preparation for the gospel. He notes how the Magi, perhaps Zoroastian and most likely drawing from the long-standing tradition of astrology from Babylon and Persia, were led by a star. Williams notes that the star led them to close to the new King, but ultimately to the wrong house. The limited understanding that their belief system contained brought them to the court of Herod the Great, not to a house in Bethlehem. It actually took Holy Scripture to bring them the rest of the way. This could point both to the possibility and limitation of this preparation. Ultimately, the Magi found the Christ, while those who had the Hebrew Scriptures in the palace in Jerusalem did not bother to travel approximately 10 kilometers to see for themselves. <Refer to N.T. Wright’s podcast, “#49 Other Faiths, Judaism and Gnosticism,” Ask N.T. Wright Anything. December 18, 2020.>

Two Christmases in One

I have written on Christmas here previously. One of my favorite posts is “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” I wrote it back in 2012.  I wrote it because every year (E….V….E…R…Y….   Year) people complain about Christmas for one thing or another. And so I made the following points:

  1. It is Okay to Christianize a Pagan Holiday <An Issue of Contextualization>
  2. It is Okay to Celebrate a Civil Holiday <An Issue of Separation>
  3. It is Okay to Celebrate Christmas in December <An Issue of Historicity>
  4. It is Okay to Celebrate <An Issue of Asceticism>
  5. It is Okay NOT to Listen to Me <An Issue of Conformity>

If you want to read it, then CLICK HERE.

I think the post is still pretty valid. The weakest point is actually probably the first one. It is weak NOT because it is wrong to recontextualize pagan symbols and festivities. It is weak because it is probable that Christmas was NOT actually a literal one-for-one replacement of a pagan holiday. Christmas is not on the day Winter Solstice and even less the days of Saturnalia.

A stronger point is #2. Christmas is TWO celebrations. It is Christian Christmas (CC) AND Secular Christmas (SC). If all aspects that relate to CC are enclosed in a ⭕ and all aspects that relate to SC are enclosed in another ⭕, those circles would not be fully aligned, but neither would they be separate. They would certainly overlap.

It is the overlap that is important.  Some Christians embrace a more  antagonistic and separatistic stance with the surrounding culture. For them, Christians should remove all aspects of Christmas that may be found in Secular Christmas. However, from a missional perspective, the overlap is good… even important.

If CC and SC were totally aligned, Christian Christmas may be fully relevant to the secular world, but non-impactful. If CC and SC were totally separate, Christian Christmas will not resonate with the secular world, so the potential impact is likely to not be given a foothold. The overlap provides the bridge. Both SC and CC value love, joy, peace, and giving. This is a useful bridge and can challenge the materialism, consumerism, and (frankly) superficial aspects that are also unsettling aspects of Secular Christmas.

To me, the failure to overlap can be seen in Hanukkah. Jewish Hanukkah (JH) is fairly well-defined. Secular Hanukkah (SH) exists in places like the US to a limited extent, but Christian Hanukkah (CH) doesn’t really exist. And this is strange. Christians often acting like celebrating Hanukkah is un-Christian. It celebrates the rededication of the 2nd temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucids a couple of centuries before Christian. It is part of our Christian story as well. Jesus in fact is recorded celebrating Hanukkah (Festival of Dedication) in John 10:22ff.

It seems to me that the lack of existence of CH has limited the impact of Christians in Hanukkah. One may question this in that in the US there has been a drift of Christmas traditions into Hanukkah in Reformed Judaism. This includes gift-giving and Hanukkah bushes. Arguably, however, the interaction is more from the secular side of Christmas than the Christian side.

Of course I am not saying that Hanukkah should become more like Christmas. Rather, I am trying to give an example of where unnecessary separation leads to lack of impact. So, while I think there are risks if Christians getting caught up in the excesses of Secular Christmas, the positive side of the overlap of the two Christmases is potentially a valuable bridge for positive impact.

The Good Follower

Who can lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless? As surely as the LORD lives,” he said, “the LORD himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the LORD forbid that I should lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed. (I Samuel 26: 9b-11a)

I have heard so many religious leaders use this term for suggesting that they, as religious leaders, are to be immune from action against them from their followers. Since the context is about killing, I guess I could agree. Religious leaders should not be killed by their followers.

But how far beyond that can one take this passage? In the context, David saw Saul as the anointed king of Israel, anointed by God, and so did want to be the one who killed him. Seemingly, he was okay if someone else would kill him, but he did not want to do it himself. I reckon that is commendable. However, it must be noted that David, in almost every other way was insubordinate to King Saul, having an armed force that worked outside of Saul’s rule, and even for a time served the enemies of King Saul. And David also chastised Saul publicly.

So, if one wished to apply accrurately the words and actions of David to King Saul, to a strictly religious setting, then a follower can avoid laying a hand “on the LORD’s anointed” and still:

-Disobey the religious leader

-Chastise him (or her) publicly

-Form factions to undermine the leader’s authority

-Serve the enemies of that leader

Of course, some of this may be questionable. But this is part of the problem of (mis)using an piece of Scripture for a very unrelated setting. But that then brings up the question of what one SHOULD do? What does it mean to be a good follower of a religious leader.

I believe a good follower should love and support his religious leader. But what does that entail

  1. A good follower holds his leader accountable. Leaders need help to avoid straying from their true calling. They need people who will support them so as not to stray. They don’t simply need fanboys.
  2. A good follower holds his faithfulness to God as inviolate… but his faithfulness to the leader as contingent. Followers sin when they follow a leader’s path into sin.
  3. A good follower neither demonizes nor glorifies the leader. The leader is human and so fails. The job of the follower is to help the leader do what is right, not find excuses for why the leader did wrong (or trying to justify why the action is not wrong).
  4. A good follower recognizes that the leader is NOT more important than God, and is NOT more important than the congregation.
  5. A good follower seeks to maintain the good reputation of the leader by helping the leader to do right, rather than to cover-up what is wrong.

In the Old Testament, there were Free Prophets and Court Prophets. Court Prophets served in the court of the king. He or she was a counselor to the king. Court Prophets often had the reputation of being sycophants— saying what the king wants to hear, and agreeing with what the king does and thinks (think of Hananiah in the book of Jeremiah). The Free Prophets, on the other hand, had the reputation of being a thorn in the sides of their kings. That was because they said what God wanted them to say, and God’s message is normally to motivate the king to change rather than to say, “You are doing well… keep up the good work!” Jeremiah then is the contrast to Hananiah in this regard.

Free Prophets were the real supporters of the King. Far too many of the Court Prophets (Nathan being a good exception) were not supporters… only fans.

Real and Unreal of Race

I have been teaching cultural anthropology here in the Philippines. I wrote a book for the class so that students did not have to grab chapters from several different books. I still feel pretty good about the book, but as I have taught the class I have started to notice some issues. One of these is the chapter on Race. The chapter is quite short because I felt like I had written everything I had wanted to about the topic. But as time went on, I feel like I have short-changed the topic.

But why would I? I come from a country where race is a big issue. In fact, for some people, it looks like it is their ONLY issue (and I am not just talking about one side of the issue). So why would I give the topic so little emphasis?

First, I think the main reason is that I understand that Race is essentially Unreal. Traditionally, race was used in a way that today might be called ethnicity or people group. Aristides, for example, speaks of four races or classes of man— Greeks Barbarians, Jews, and Christians. That use of the term is rather obsolete, so there was no reason to put that in the chapter on race. Into the 17th and 18th centuries, race was tied to physical traits much as it is often now. However, it is hard to draw lines in mankind because physical variations in humans are actually rather trivial in terms of geographic regions, and defy clear taxonomies. Years ago, people talked of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, but so many did not fit well into these categories. Early 1900s, there was White, Black, Yellow, Brown, and Red. These five groups fit slightly better (although none of labels, except MAYBE brown, is very descriptive). The labels still appear to be pretty arbitrary. More recently, some (like Jared Diamond) have used a different five— White Black, Asian, African Pygmy, and Xhosan. This also seems pretty arbitrary. In the 19th century was the growth of the theory of biological evolution. Race in this case is a rank below sub-species, implying that it is on route to becoming a separate species from the rest. Considering the relative genetic sameness across all peoples of the world, this understanding of human race is pretty silly (regardless of your view of biological evolution). But out of it came Race Science, which ultimately attempted to demonstrate in different ways why “I am better than You because I come from a Superior Race than you.” Again, studies in genetics work to sabotage any real basis for this… though many don’t let go of the idea easily. Today Race is seen as a more informal social construct (like in America where races or ‘ethnicities’ are identified (white, black, asian, hispanic, native American, etc.) in a manner that puts people together and separates others for rather arbitrary societal reasons rather than based on sound categories of similarity and dissimilarity.

2. Race is tied to bad theology. When I was young, I was told that there were three races- White, Black, Asian, and that they sprang up from the sons of Noah. Japheth was the father of the “White” races, Ham was the father of the “Black” races, and Shem of Semitic and other Asian races. Of course, even as a young child I was rather suspicious of this. The family tree of Noah did not really line up with present-day racial designations. In fact, it looked like a way to link Blacks with the “bad son” of Noah— Ham. While my church did not do this (thankfully), some churches did use this flawed logic to justify slavery. (I am not sure how Whites could use the idea that they descended from a “good son” of Noah, Japheth, as a reason for doing something evil— enslaving others and treating them as property. But as my dad said, never assume that people think through racist opinions fully.) Later on, I learned of British-Israelism, that saw the British or perhaps Americans as the ‘lost tribes of Israel.’ While I had at least one friend who passionately believed this, the argument appeared to be so strained, that I struggle to see any sense to this one. Some groups have even dredged up the idea of “Pre-Adamic” races, based on NOTHING in the Bible to create a category of ‘sub-humans’ to give people an OUT on the Great Commandment. Presumably, if some people are sub-human then one doesn’t have to love them as one loves oneself. (But would it? Strangers and Aliens in Luke 19 were supposed to be shown hospitality. How could one identify human versus sub-human aliens?)

But there is a problem with treating race as unreal. When one treats it as unreal, one tends not to see the term used abusively. Race DOES exist as a social construct, made by people for their own reasons. Race is used to interpret experiences and guide behavior. We tend not to see color differentiations until we have labels for them. We tend not see abuse until we recognize a label to go with it. (I am amazed at how many Christians cannot identify Spiritual Abuse, until they have embraced a label for it.) Just because race is based on bogus taxonomies does not mean it is irrelevant in the minds of people who think based on racial constructs.

For example, I am of Swedish ancestry so I would be considered Caucasoid or White. My wife is of Filipino ancestry, meaning that she is considered to be of Mongoloid, Brown, or Yellow, or Asian racial group. I am considered by people to be part of a ‘mixed race’ marriage. My wife and I got married in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. If we had tried to marry there prior to the mid-1960s we would not have been allowed because of ‘miscegenation laws, ‘ the mixing or races. My children are considered to be bi-racial (except by pre-2000 US census collection where my children would have been required to ‘pick one race’). As foolish as all of this sounds to me, these categories do not go away because they exist in people’s minds.

Another example has been in the response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have gotten bothered by the statement, “Black Lives Matter.” Some are bothered because it seems to reinforce racial designations. Others don’t like it because it seems to support a less than Biblical perspective. Isn’t it true that “All Lives Matter”? However, when one ignores a social reality, the problem tends to be made worse. Let me give an example. As noted before, my wife and I are thought of as being part of a mixed-race couple. We have been pretty blessed in having received relatively little grief for being ‘mixed-race,’ and the little grief we have received—- well, we were able to “consider the source.” But many mixed race couples have received a lot of discrimination and even hostility. Suppose someone created an organization, “God Loves Mixed Race Families.” I could imagine someone saying this is a bad name because clearly, “God Loves All Families.” They would be right… but also wrong… because it fails to challenge the prejudices. A positive statement that is generally applied vaguely, does not strike the target. People who would see the name, “God Loves All Families” would tend to see that type of family that they themselves would tend to love. Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan because the people would have made the Parable of the Good Human Being fit their own prejudices. Likewise, saying that the name of the group is invalid since there are really no such things as races anyway, may have a point in a genetic or phenotypic sense. But raceS DO exist as social constructs and do indeed guide how people are judged and acted for or against.

Another example is that I am part of a denomination in which some of the major seminary presidents have come out against CRT (Critical Race Theory) and Intersectionality. Of course, CRT is such a general term that one can find a flavor of it that pretty much anyone would be against. However, to recognize the importance of race as a social construct that guides social behaviors at pretty much every level in a society… well, that is just the way it is. As such, it is a valid form of analysis for a wide range of fields. Of course, to say it is a valid form of analysis doesn’t mean that (1) it is the only valid form of analysis, (2) it is the most valid form of analysis, or (3) all versions of it are valid forms of analysis. Just coming out against it seems remarkably naive for theologians. (Of course I have not read their individual perspectives on CRT, and so I hope these are far more nuanced.)

As far as intersectionality, its general meaning is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” (Oxford Languages)

As a Caucasian American living in a predominantly Asian community in an Asian country gives me a wide and seemingly contradictory set of advantages and disadvantages. Being married to one from this country adds further twists. Again, on some level intersectionality is simply true. Being opposed to intersectionality is, to some extent, being opposed to gravity, or the first law of thermodynamics. If you reject the extreme views regarding intersectionality… I am sure I am right there with you. The problem is that to deal with issues of race, one needs to avoid finding “straw men” to erect and knock down. In missions and in culture, issues of race don’t go away by simply acting like such discussions are invalid or exaggerated.

Looking over this post… Yes, I think there are things I should add to my chapter on Race. For missionaries, and people working in any place where people judge people based on a construct that we call race (essentially everywhere) it is something that must be addressed and taken seriously. When racism is revealed, it may create problems. When racism is ignored, the problems become even greater. When racism is denied, the problems explode.

An article that is not totally related, but still related enough is one by Jackson Wu,

Accepting our Mutual “Crappiness”

Before I get into my topic more fully, I would like to share a quote from Martin Buber.

Genuine conversation, and therefore, every actual fulfillment and relationship between men, means acceptance of otherness… Everything depends, as far as human life is concerned, on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way.

Marin Buber, Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays (Humanity Books, 1998), 59. Quoted by Mordechai Gordon “Listening as Embracing the Other: Martin Buber’s Philosphy of Dialogue” Education Theory. Vol. 61, No. 2 (2011) University of Illinois

I am going to relay a story very vaguely. An old friend of mine (only have communicated in the last 30 years on FB) posted a mildly humorous political joke that was presumably slightly pro-conservative (in terms of American politics) by poking light fun at pro-liberals (again, in terms of American politics). I had no real problem with it. I don’t ascribe to any particular American political ideology. But then something interesting happened. One person (who sounded strangely like me… at least in this comment) said something about the two sides should really get together and talk things out. My old friend went ballistic about that. It seemed to be an odd thing comment to get so heated about it. My old friend went into something of the sort… “Where did positive dialogue happen back in _______ when THEY __________!!!!”

That was so strange. But on reflection, it wasn’t so strange. This is a very human reaction. People don’t like to have conversations with people of different perspectives. People like to have “face moves on” (of “to dunk on”) people of other perspectives… or more likely, listen to others who like to use rhetoric to make others look bad. In the case of my friend, he essentially said that he did not want to have a healthy conversation with people of a different perspective because people of that group did “bad stuff” in the past. Curiously, the bad stuff was no more bad that people in his own camp have done at different times. Part of me wants to say that that is not logical… it is not rational. However, people aren’t really rational— and that is okay. We are emotional beings. That is good, but there are risks. Blood feuds have lasted, in some places, for years… even centuries… where each side blames the other for past crimes that their own side had done just as much.

It is not a good look (especially for Christians) when it comes to interreligious communication. But it is probably NEVER a good look. Even the most wrongheaded person is right some of the time. And even the most rightheaded person is wrong some of the time (a LOT of the time).

So what gives genuine conversation? Looking at Buber,

  1. Acceptance of otherness. The other person is not a stereotype… a strawman caricature. The other person is not a demon. In fact, if they believe things from you, it probably comes from a good place not bad. They believe their beliefs are correct and beneficial. They probably are not comic book villains who do things “to perpetuate evil” (at least from their own perspective). Thanos (the movie incarnation of the character at least) thought he was doing things to perpetuate good (even if his plan was pretty stupid).
  2. Accept their desire of others to influence. People believe they are right and that if others shared their views, the world would be at least slightly better. In other words, USUALLY people want to influence others, and this desire comes from a good place, not a bad place. If one can accept that the motives of the other are probably good.
  3. Act Intentionally. To unreservedly accept and confirm the other doesn’t happen naturally. It must be done intentionally. One must choose to override one’s natural tendency to dehumanize (demonize, move from I-you to I-it) others, and accept that different perspectives may come from good motives.
  4. Recognize our Mutual Crappiness. Despite the fact that most of us may have good motives behind our disparate beliefs, our tendency to demonize those we disagree with, and tendency to think that others have bad motives behind their differences—- well, that is pretty crappy. But if we all tend to do this, then we are mutually crappy. Knowing this can also help us break down barriers— we share a common struggle. Our conflict with others, is first of all a conflict within ourselves.

Top Five Posts for 2020

Today is December 2, 2020. Today my dad would have turned 96. It has been a challenging year. But days roll by, the earth keeps spinning regardless. I thought I would share the top posts this year.

  1. Reflection, Restoration, and Redemption, and the Three Little Pigs. 2015. This was a story I wrote that utilized the characters of the pigs to explore the differences between the 3 Rs. I feel it does that quite well.
  2. Oral Transmission and “Rida Rida Runka.” 2013. This is an odd post. I looked at the Scandanavian children’s rhyme Rida Rida Runka and how it was transmitted generation after generation, even in places where the original language competence has been lost. I kind of used this to show the importance of understanding oral transmission even in literate societies. In ministry one should never forget the importance of orality and the techniques that help oral communication to survive and even endure beyond written communication.
  3. Reminiscing with Mr. Bean. 2014. This is a bit more autobiographical and talks about our transition from living in the US to serving in the Philippines. A weird mixture of wistful nostalgia and anxiety.
  4. The Chicken that Laid the Golden Egg. 2018. A modest reworking of the classic The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. The story was fleshed out a bit with it incorporated into a sermon. Actually, it was one of my better sermons, IMHO.
  5. Problems with Spiritual Gifts. 2017. This one is also a bit autobiographical. I used to lead spiritual gift seminars. But as I continued I realized that much of what I was teaching was stuff that was made up. I also started to see that while Spiritual Gifts are given by God to empower the church to serve, it has become used to divide the church in recent years. That is still true. Just this last Sunday a member of our church was confused because of pastor from another church was telling her that she should “speak in tongues” because people who do have a special “communion” with the Holy Spirit. Such a belief is not in the Bible, and certainly does not appear to be in line with the purpose of Spiritual gifts. The pastor, sadly, appears to be trying to cause problems in a different church. (If he wants to cause trouble, he should do it in his own.) Anyway, I feel the post covers many of the problems with how Spiritual Gifts are understood today.

Sufficiently Advanced Magic

Years ago, Science Fiction Writer, Arthur C. Clarke came up with Three Laws that he shared in an essay he wrote titled, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.”

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I would like to offer a fourth rule,

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Let me explain for a bit. Wikipedia uses a description for technology: “the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods and services in the accomplishment of objectives.”

Using Wikipedia again (why not?) gives a description for magic: “the practice of beliefs, rituals and/or actions which are said to control and manipulate either natural or supernatural beings and forces.”

These seem to be fairly useful descriptions, problematic only in that they are pretty vague. The vagueness is shown in that anything that fits under the umbrella of description for technology would also fit under the umbrella of description for magic .”Techniques, skills, methods, and processes” heavily overlap with “beliefs, rituals, and/or actions.”

The big difference is not directly stated in these descriptions. Technology is thought of as utilizing natural forces, while magic is thought of as utilizing unnatural (or “supernatural” forces).

But what separates natural and unnatural forces?

I can see how some people could identify a clear line between the two. Natural forces utilize laws and principles that we understand. The are predictable and deterministic. They generally can be analyzed scientifically (at least for those these can be analyzed in the “now”). Unnatural forces (if such exist) utilize laws and principles that are not understood. They are mysterious. They are not predictable and deterministic. They cannot really be analyzed scientifically.

As an engineer, I utilized technology and developed technology. I did not reject the supernatural, but I certainly felt that there was a very clear and definable chasm between the natural and the unnatural.

But I also studied electromagnetic theory, Einsteinian physics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear engineering both formally as a student, as an armchair novice, and at least for nuclear engineering as a vocation. The more I looked into this, the more I wondered whether the line was so clear. At the quantum level, particles behave in ways that are not well understood at all. They often behave in ways that are nonintuitive, and nondeterministic. One starts to wonder as one studies light phenomenon, and sub-atomic particles, whether we can say that they actually exist—- at least exist in a way that commonly view existence in the macroscopic world. And yet we use these semi-existent things to light our world, to move us from point A to point B and to carry out all sorts of calculations. It occurs to me that electrons, for example, behave in ways that defy imagination. They permeate matter, but matter is energy, and energy is bafflingly difficult to concept to wrap one’s head around (even if we are pretty comfortable with using it).

It is not a ridiculous statement to say that electrons (along with other building blocks of atoms) and electromagnetic radiation fit into magical categories pretty much as clearly as they do natural categories.

If one looks at how electrons and electromagnetic radiation are used to affect our world (for good and evil), one might argue that we live in an age of advanced magic as much as advanced technology.

Along those lines, living things also challenge the deterministic presumptions of natural phenomenon. I am reminded of the “Harvard Law.”

“Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of
pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other
variables, the organism will do as it damn well pleases.”

We don’t really understand life, despite shouts to the contrary, nor can we predict how life will interact with its environment, at least on an individual basis. Yet we have gotten better at understanding patterns of group behavior. Again, our ability to manipulate life macroscopically, while it defies scrutiny on several key levels could also point to advanced use of magic as much as technology.

Now for those who find this weird, don’t worry. I don’t have some big agenda here. My goal is not to redefine our age as the age of magic. But when we study other cultures, we often like to come up with nice neat categories of technology, magic, religion, science, and so forth. But these categories are not as clearcut as they may at first seem. And for people in a different culture, they may come up with very different categories than what we come up with. They may see boxes that talk and “think” as magic— communicating by invisible signals sent through space and air, powered by invisible things sent through metal. We might disagree with them and say it is not actually magic, but that is more of our own choice of taxonomy than anything else.

However, beyond the anthropological, I would say that one value is to recognize that we live in “magical” and “mysterious” times. Our ability to harness a force should not suck the wonder out of that force. Our ability to quantify a phenomenon should not keep us from embracing the mystery of the phenomenon itself. The universe is too big to comprehend and works on principles that so fare elude our ability to comprehend.

That is not at all a bad thing.

Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 2)

So what can one do to avoid falling prey to groupthink, confirmation bias, selective exposure, and being overwhelmed by information overload? Well I had several awesome ideas for this post…. but then I took a few days off, and I can’t remember some of them. But let me see where this goes.

  1. Doubt. Paul Westphal noted that we cannot look over God’s shoulder. God knows the truth, and is Truth, but others are not privy to truth without error. In practice, that means we must be humble and forgiving of ourselves, embracing our own limitations. And the same must apply to others. No human is correct all of the time… and no human is incorrect all of the time (though I swear, some really try).
  2. Respect. Doubt should minimize our trust of individuals as authorities, but if we recognize that every person is right about some things and wrong about some things, it is also likely that a person who is wrong 97% of the time is still right (in that 3%) in something that I am wrong about. That means that pretty much every person on earth I can learn from, if I am open to valuing every person. I believe every person is worthy of respect inherently because each is lovingly designed by a fully capable and creative God. But if each person is someone I can gain by learning something from, I have another reason to respect each person. After all, we tend not to learn from people we don’t respect.
  3. Dialogue. People love to preach, to teach, to talk, and to argue. They don’t like to listen much, and even less to dialogue. Yet it is in dialogue that we tend to learn. That is why people and groups that want to indoctrinate their followers do it first by isolating followers from alternative viewpoints. They also tend to breed disrespect for the people who hold other views. And this indoctrination scheme would be really a great idea if the group was right about everything. But no such group exists. We learn from each other. (I have talked enough about dialogue elsewhere, you can look at DIALOGUE IN DIVERSITY for more).
  4. Reflection. Learning is iterative… but it often takes a certain intentionality. Much religious education (and even civil education) is focused on rote learning… memorizing dogma. There is value in that, but the value is wasted if one is not also is also not trained to think reflective.

I feel like I forgot one of the big thoughts for this post, but I cannot remember. Perhaps someone else has a suggestion to share. I am happy to reflect on it.