My Strength is My Temptation– Part 2

I suppose the term “Strength” is a bit of a loaded term. Very commonly what one may consider a strength another could consider a weakness. A strong desire to lead or dominate can be seen as a strength. When we think of great leaders in history, we think of their drive to lead as part of what makes them great. However, many of those with a great desire to leader lack competence, or have an unhealthy faith in their own wisdom. On the other hand, those with a “need to lead” may be in a position that does not allow them to exercise that quality— the trait expressing itself in insubordination.

Additionally, one strength can create a weakness in another area. One of the greatest basketball players of all time was Michael Jordan. He was also very good in baseball, and solid in golf. Perhaps he could have been truly great in baseball or in golf if he had not focused on basketball. Of course to some extent work in one athletic sport can help with other sports… but such focus in one would likely prevent reaching one’s potential in another. Even further, I doubt Michael Jordan is strong in Nuclear Engineering or Missiology. It is not to suggest that he couldn’t be (he seems like a smart guy) but his intense focus on basketball and other athletic endeavors ensured he would not be great in those other areas.

So I have been undermining the idea of “Strength” as it pertains to qualities or abilities in people. But that is not really to focus of this post. The point I am working toward is that STRENGTH IS A PERSONAL PERCEPTION.

We each identify in ourselves certain qualities or abilities as strengths.

It is these perceptions that open up temptations. A person who believes that they could never cheat on their spouse is open to manipulation, and ultimately falling. The person less likely to cheat is one who knows that he or she can cheat and determines not to. That person is more likely to establish personal taboos and boundaries to prevent it. Con-men and demagogues give their message in the language that speaks to the perceptive strengths of the target population. For demagogues, commonly they say something to the effect that, “What you think about yourselves and your greatness is correct. But you are being held back by ______________ (government, class group, racial group, political group, etc.)”

It is okay to identify strengths in yourself. It is okay even to identify strengths incorrectly. What is dangerous is to identify strengths in oneself without realizing that this opens to door to temptation and manipulation.

In missions this can be a common and serious problem. Some missionaries have a “Messiah complex.” They see themselves as hyper-capable and others as hyper-needy. This can develop dependent relationships. And that is one of the ‘better’ results. More seriously, this missionary may see themselves as indispensible. Some missionaries identify themselves as great leaders. Many see others as “born followers” in turn. These missionaries may not prepare for their own retirement or mortality. They may not train others up. They set up their work for failure. Some may see themselves as great preachers or evangelizers. Yet, in most cases, locals are actually better at reaching their own people. Focusing on doing all the work themselves, missionaries can hamper their work.

I hope I have made the point. One’s strength is one’s temptation. The fix for that is not to self-deprecate— to reject the idea of personal strengths. Rather, it is to be self-aware of what one’s strengths and weaknesses actually are— and to realize the strengths in terms of potential weaknesses, limitations and the potential as a temptation or area of manipulation.

My Strength is My Temptation– Part 1

I guess it struck me when I was talking about Love Languages (Gary Chapman) with my Pastoral Care Students (or maybe my wife’s CPE trainees… I can’t remember for sure). As I was talking about the five love languages <Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Receiving Gifts, and Acts of Service>, I noted that each person responds positively to words or actions of another that lines up with one’s own affinity (love language). So, if my love language is “Acts of Service,” I am likely to respond positively to someone doing acts of service for me, and see such action as loving.

And that is good to know. To appear loving to someone else, I am most likely to be successful if I act in a way that aligns with their own love language, rather than my own personal love language. For me, I am a “Words of Affirmation” type. Although “Acts of Service” are nice, I don’t typically see them as acts of love. But if I want to show my love for a person whose love language is acts of service I must step out of my own affinities and adjust to that of the other. While Love Language is pretty simple, it can be pretty powerful in talking about relationships.

But there is a dark side to Love Languages. It also tells us how to manipulate others. If I know that someone’s love language is receiving gifts, I can use gifts to manipulate that person. The person is likely to see gifts given as a positive expression of lovingness– NOT as a selfish ploy to get my own way.

Of course, Strengths are subjective things. What one calls one’s strength, another might call one’s:

  • Need. This one is pretty obvious. Love language explicitly identifies itself neutrally— If one’s love language is “Quality Time,” it is a strength in that one is likely to be much better to demonstrate love through quality time over those of a different love language. However, since that is the love language one operates under, it is the demonstration of love that one desires/needs. A lot of other tests like this can be said to be similar. 9 Spiritual pathways expresses a strength in worship… but in so doing also expresses what one’s craves/needs. Murray’s Psychogenic Needs can also be described as personal strengths (or weaknesses… more on that later).
  • Treasure/Idol. Jesus stated that where our treasure is, there are heart is also. Strengths, needs, treasures, and idols then tend to be overlapping items. Christopher Wright speaks of idols as things we worship— that which inspires awe in us, that which we desire, that which we fear, and that which overcomes our fear.
  • Weakness. Strengths are our weaknesses? Well that is for Part 2.

In Part 2 is seeking to redefine strength and show how this relates to missions.

Better Questions and Al Yagoda

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has become popularized in recent days. Unfortunately it sometimes gets reimagined as “Stupid people often think they are smarter than they really are.” Of course, that is not the issue. It is that people tend not to be self-aware of their own incompetence in a subject. People who are very ignorant in a topic often feel that they are quite knowledgeable in the topic. This is hardly surprising, since it is a truism that…

“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

This reminds me of a satirical post in the “Babylon Bee.” The title was, “Scholars Now Believe Job’s Friends Were First-Year Seminary Students.” Since the story was certainly used in the training of young men in rabbinical schools for millennia, I can’t help but wonder if it is more truth than satire (“Not the Onion”-worthy).

“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

— Thomas Sowell

Perhaps a bit more surprising is that people who are genuinely experts in a topic often feel that they are more ignorant than they really are. The more one studies a subject the more one understands how vast it is. Although experts tend to be more realistic than novices, one may become so focused on the vast vistas of the unknown that one may lose sight of the level of competency that one has achieved. When I was in first year college for mechanical engineering, a question had come up in mathematics that was new to me. I decided to ask my dad. He told me that he had no idea what the answer was. I was shocked. My father had a bachelors degree in mathematics (magna cum laude), had been “human computer” (back when those were the only computers that existed) in missile design and then a test engineer at a high-performance bearing company. As I went on in my education, I gained a better understanding of how vast mathematics. It is so vast that no one embraces all of it with any level of competence. Expertise narrows. When young, my dad was an expert in college-level mathematics… as well as mental math. When older, his expertise became Weibull distributions and failure analysis (small but important parts of the vast, infinite, plane that is mathematics).

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

–Charles Darwin

So:

  • Incompetent people in an area tend to think that they much more competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think they are somewhat less competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think that they are more competent than they really are in areas that they lack expertise.

It could be suggested that the first point on the list is unnecessary. Pretty much all of us are experts in something, and every single person on earth who is an expert in something is going to be incompetent in a vast range of things. So you get people like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about philosophy with great confidence but without competence. I shouldn’t pick on him alone. I find people talking about climate change with great confidence (actually on both sides of the issue) but with know training in the matter. I have seen Nobel prize winners talk with great confidence on topics that they have little expertise in.

In fact, we all do it. We are all rather incompetent in most ways…. but we really don’t want to go around and sound ignorant. We all want to appear competent and that we know exactly what needs to be done. I teach Interreligious Dialogue and I have my students write up case studies of themselves in interreligious dialogue. So many are uncomfortable because they are afraid of being asked something that they don’t know the answer to. They are afraid of that “Gotcha!!” moment where they feel stupid. (Strangely, in most cases, the person they were talking to probably would have respected them more if they simply said, “Wow, that is a great question. I need to research that. Or maybe we can figure it out together.”) We want to be the Gotcha!! guy like Ben Shapiro focused more on belittling the other than on seeking truth.

We all want to be Al Yagoda.

Who is Al Yagoda? One of my bosses back when I was a mechanical design engineer told me to avoid Al Yagoda. When we have a question, don’t listen to people that answer with, “Al Yagoda do is….. ” or “All you need is…”

Answers are rarely that easy. We rarely know the answer. I tell my seminary students to embrace the sentence, “I don’t know.” It is a good sentence because it is commonly true. It is also often true when you think it is not true (As the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests).

This does not mean that one must end with “I don’t know.” I don’t know is a starting place, not an endpoint. In the classes I teach, someone asks a good question. I often will say, “I don’t know… but here are some thoughts I have on this.’ Or maybe, “I don’t know… but maybe someone else here knows.”

Sometimes, I don’t know is followed by a strategy to find out. I remember as an engineer, a friend of mine was making an electronic cabinet and wasn’t sure what thickness of sheet metal he should use. He asked me what I thought would work. I said, quite correctly, “I don’t know.’ However, I then followed with, “I think I know how we can find out.” I took him downstairs to the testing department where there were a number of electronic racks. I pointed to three of them and told him to sit on them and push on them. He did. I told him the thicknesses of sheet metal used for each. Based on that he had a good idea what to use. He discovered the truth, and did so in a way that was more visceral. Me telling him what I thought was the best thickness may or may not have been right… but it certainly would NOT be the best way to inform him.

Being an expert in a field is often not about having better answers, but having better questions. I think this is especially true in missions and in theology. I like to tell my students that they should not expect that I have the best answers. I can be wrong. I am wrong every day. I have met people who think that they are experts and so should be believed. I don’t think anyone living today is such an expert in a subject that they have earned the right to be unquestionably believed. But PERHAPS they should be taken seriously.

That is what I tell my students. They can disagree with me… and they may be right in doing so. Based on my training and experience, I don’t expect to be believed… but I DO expect to have my thoughts taken seriously. If all I do as a seminary professor is indoctrinate them to parrot my beliefs, I have done little, if any, good.

But if I can train up people to gain some sense of the vastness of theology and missions, have the self-awareness to recognize their own expertise AND ignorance, and help them to ask better questions, I have accomplished something wonderful.

That is something that I am pretty sure that I know.

Men of NO Ideas

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea.” It was written by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881). Some sources say it was written by Timothy Titcomb. However, that was his pseudonym. I have a copy of the essay in the Union Sixth Reader, a book published in 1862. Long have I sought an electronic copy of the essay. I really did not want to type it out. Thankfully, someone else did. If you want to read it, you can CLICK HERE.

Here is a short excerpt from that relatively short essay…

Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, whether spoken through nature or revelation. There is no one idea in all God’s universe so great and so nutritious that it can furnish food for an immortal soul. Variety of nutriment is absolutely essential, even to physical health. There are so many elements that enter into the structure of the human body, and such variety of stimuli requisite for the play of its vital forces, that it is necessary to lay under tribute a wide range of nature; and fruits and roots and grain, beasts of the field, fowls of the air, and fish of the sea, juices and spices and flavors, all bring their contributions to the perfection of the human animal, and the harmony of its functions. …

A mind that surrenders itself to a single idea becomes essentially insane. I know a man who has dwelt so long upon the subject of a vegetable diet that it has finally taken possession of him. It is now of such importance in his eyes that every other subject is thrown out of its legitimate relations to him. It is the constant theme of his thought–the study of his life. He questions the properties and quantities of every mouthful that passes his lips, and watches its effects upon him. He reads upon this subject everything he can lay his hands on. He talks upon it with every man he meets. He has ransacked the whole Bible for support to his theories; and the man really believes that the eternal salvation of the human race hinges upon a change of diet. It has become a standard by which to decide the validity of all other truth. If he did not believe that the Bible was on his side of the question, he would discard the Bible. Experiments or opinions that make against his faith are either contemptuously rejected or ingeniously explained away. Now this man’s mind is not only reduced to the size of his idea, and assimilated to its character, but it has lost its soundness. His reason is disordered. His judgment is perverted–depraved. He sees things in unjust and illegitimate relations. The subject that absorbs him has grown out of proper proportions, and all other subjects have shrunk away from it. I know another man–a man of fine powers–who is just as much absorbed by the subject of ventilation; and though both of these men are regarded by the community as of sound mind, I think they are demonstrably insane.

Timothy Titcomb’s essay: Men Of One Idea http://fullonlinebook.com/essays/men-of-one-idea/nibb.html

Since we are talking about the Bible, I am reminded of a few verses that (I would argue) relate strongly to the point of Holland…

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.

Proverbs 15:22

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 11:14

For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Proverbs 24:6

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 12:15

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance,

Proverbs 1:5

After three days they found him (Jesus) in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.

Proverbs 13:10

Reading these verses, one sees a couple of clues to gaining wisdom. First is Dialogue. Luke 2:46 and Proverbs 27:17 suggests this directly. The Luke passage is especially important since Jesus (we are tempted to think of Him as one who needs no wisdom from others) is described as holding dialogue and asking questions with experts. A few verses later, in verse 52, Jesus is described as growing in wisdom. The other verses I shared describe interaction with others, and presumably this implies dialogue of 2 or more people. Second is Counsel. Wise people listen to others. They don’t simply trust in their own self-sufficient awesomeness, but take seriously others’ perspectives, knowledge, and understanding.

But if the counsel of many leads to wisdom, what is the character of this wisdom?

#1. Broadly defined. What I mean is that it should be BOTH eductive and deductive. Deductive is classic advice-giving. The counselor tells the other something that this person does not know. This is the classic one. Eductive is the preferred method of modern psychological and pastoral counseling. Eductive counseling is a form of drawing out. It presumes that the person already knows what is right and true, but needs help in drawing this out or identifying the internal inconsistencies in that person. We see Eductive counseling masterfully integrated into broader counseling in Nathan’s counseling of King David regarding his affair with Bathsheba (and with killing Uriah). I think broadly defined also suggests both “sofia” and “phronesis.” These Greek terms suggest wisdom based on theoretical understanding of the way things are (sofia wisdom) and the practical understanding of the way things should be and how to accomplish this (phronesis wisdom).

#2. Multi-perspectival. Wisdom comes from listening to different perspectives. Because of this having a group of “Yes Men” does not count. This is not counseling. It is parroting back what the one says and thinks. They tickle the ear and confirm the prejudices of the one who needs wisdom rather than affirmation. There is no doubt that this is a failure… because there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Self.” But that brings up another thought. What if there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Other?” That is, what if one surrounds oneself with only one perspective. I would argue that this is no better. We learn by being surrounded in a sea of ideas. While we may fear drowning in such a sea, we are likely to be parched with the trickle from a spring that feeds only one stream of thought. Walter Wrigley Jr. has the great quote, “When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” Perhaps this bit of wisdom applies in life as well.

It seems to me that we are suffering from this today. Perhaps as a defense against being inundated with too many ideas, we shield ourselves off from all but one viewpoint. I see this a lot. I teach in a seminary and am often shocked at how little seminarians (who are supposed to be “experts” in religion and theology) know about other religions, or even the church of a different denomination or tradition just down the road. I occasionally get notes from friends sharing interesting information. They tell me where they got this information. That is a good thing because citations are important. However, in some cases, it is clear from the context that I should believe it because it came from news source “A,” and not from news source “B.” In fact, I have had people gainsay things I have said simply because I referenced a source that they have identified as “fake.” Often, however, fake just means that it expresses a different perspective. Truthfully, I get that. There are some sources of information I am tempted to reject off-hand. I have to remind myself that even a person who is 99% wrong, must then be 1% right, and it is possible that in that 1% is something I need to hear.

If you think about it… surrounding oneself with those who share one perspective is likely to create an echo chamber that leads to more extreme and unquestioned opinions. It is in this environment that groups with cultic tendencies (authoritarian and separatist structures with extremist views) and fascination with conspiracy theories thrive. Sometimes people describe this as the “new tribalism,” and perhaps the term has some merit. Years ago, people spoke of the Internet, along with migration, and ease of travel and communication leading to a sort of globalistic mega-culture. But we love to identify with smaller groups. There are good and bad sides to this. But one bad side is the temptation to sanctify our own group (and our opinions), while demonizing other groups and opinions.

And if one places oneself into this setting where one willingly becomes a reflector and transmitter of the insulted views of another(s), it may not be enough to say that this person has become “A Man of One Idea.” Such a phrase suggests some amount of personal creativity… a bit of innovation. Creativity comes from interacting with diversity, rather than indoctrination from uniformity. As such, this person perhaps may be best described as “A Man of NO Ideas.”

I believe that God has gifted all of us with the potential for wisdom that, in part, springs from our uniqueness. This uniqueness comes from our:

  • Talents
  • Calling
  • Circumstances
  • Experiences
  • Relationships

To give a trivial example. I am “White” (Swedish-American) raised up in a region that was almost 100% White (a small percentage of Native Americans made up the remainder of the population at that time). I was raised up in a culture where an awful lot of people shared a common identity and perspective. Nothing wrong with that… geography and socio-economic factors would drive a lot of people to a common perspective. However, the US Navy got me out of the area and allowed me to see many other parts of the United States and the World. This travel in some ways helped me to treasure the uniqueness of my upbringing, but it also helped me to see its limitations. Marrying a woman who was raised up in a different country of a different ethnicity, and raising children who are considered biracial, helped me see things from a yet broader perspective. Then living for 17 years in a country where I am not part of a 99% ethnic majority, but rather a 1% ethnic minority, has further helped me see things from a decidedly different perspective.

I believe that these different circumstances have helped me grow as a person. I also believe that my perspective may also be valuable to someone who has had a decidedly different background. This doesn’t mean that I got it all together. This doesn’t mean that people of narrower experiences are of no value to me.

Multi-perspective dialogue helps. Some express fear of individuals “losing their faith” whatever faith position one is speaking of. For me, however, a faith that goes unchallenged is likely to both brittle and rotten. Rotten means it goes from something good to something bad (Holland’s essay speaks to this). This is where extreme viewpoints tend to take a person to a very bad place. Brittleness means that one has not developed the faculties to think through ones beliefs. When challenged, the person is either forced to react with hostility, or retreat ignobly. “Losing one’s faith” in this situation may be either (a) losing a faith that was unworthy of basing one’s whole life upon— or (b) never having really embraced that faith in a constructive, reflective, and creative way.

A “Man of No Ideas” will devolve toward a from of insanity (falling pray to the mind-control of a few), or instability of poorly reflected upon opinions that yield to the will of others.

Memorializing 22 Years Late

Back in 1999, I finally finished my masters thesis in Engineering Mechanics. The thesis is titled, “The Effect of Temperature of Short-term Creep Rupture Response in Polymer Matrix Pultruded Composites.” At the time, I felt that the work I did was quite relevant to the expansion of knowledge in a very narrow field. I especially felt that way because some of the findings did not follow the theory that was identified as true at the time. I felt that my findings were quite useful in changing things. Additionally, when I looked at some of the (very limited) data from others, it appeared to me that my formulation fit their own data points better than the formula they came up with. I also knew that things would not change since my thesis would go on a shelf in the Old Dominion University library and disappear in a mass conglomeration of paper and ink.

22 years later… I am not so sure. I know that my tests were pretty good… but I did have to work around some equipment and schedule limitations that could have messed up my findings. And even if I did discover something new and interesting… I suppose someone else figured it out by now. If so, then what I did, not only did not matter then… but doesn’t matter now.

So now I teach Christians Missions… so why talk about it now?

I am not sure. I am thinking about it. But it is a shame when good research gets lost. The school where I got my Doctor of Theology degree doesn’t really encourage the dissertations or theses produced to be published. I really have no idea why. Perhaps I should ask. But if knowledge is progressive., then it is good for what is found to be retained and shared. In some ways knowledge isn’t all that progressive. My thesis on pultruded composites was based on a setting that may or may not have relevance today. My dissertation on medical missions in the Philippines is gradually becoming obsolete as laws changes, and medical needs change.

But even if some research proves to be completely obsolete, or even wrong, that doesn’t make it worthless. I enjoyed reading about the theories of the Planet Vulcan (not the Star Trek one) , Ether (related to the theory of light propagation), and Phlogiston (related to combustion). Although all three theoretical constructs were proven false, they have significance in the process of our learning.

Beyond that, however, is that I want to share my thesis as a memorial. I put a lot of blood and sweat into the work… and perhaps even a few tears. I actual gave up on it because of the difficulty I had traveling 6 hours round trip each weekend to check my test rig. I eventually decided to continue… but I didn’t really need to. I got the job I wanted. The degree wasn’t necessary. And now that I am in missions, the need is even less.

I could just bury it… much like it is buried in the archives of one of the libraries at ODU. But I like the thoughts of Peter Berger. In speaking of grief and loss, he speaks of a few strategies (or failures to strategize) in terms of coping. One of these is Memorializing. When we lose something we value, one way we can address the loss is by doing something to honor and provide meaning for that loss. When my dad died, I decided to publish the book that he had been working on and had recently finished. It was my way of dealing with that loss.

I was in the US Navy. Quoting Tom Lehrer, regarding my military care, I am “justifiably modest.” I liked parts of it… but hated a sizable part of it. But rather than trying to simply forget, I have been trying to embrace giving that chapter of my life meaning. For good or for ill, it had a great role in forming who I am today. I am still figuring out how to memorialize/honor that. One way I have been trying to do that is to write about it… not for public consumption, but to pass down to my children.

I am honoring the pain an aggravation of my Master’s Thesis in Engineering Mechanics, but scanning the paper into my computer (110 pages) and then turning it into a pdf for public consumption.

I am not convinced that it will be of any appreciation to people… a master’s degree thesis from 22 years ago is not likely to provide relevant cutting-edge info. But that is okay. We did not set up a burial stone at Ivory Cemetery for others. We did it as a memorial for my parents… and for us.

But, if for some reason you are interested, the ARTICLE IS HERE.

Learning from a Chambered Nautilus

When I was young, the word Nautilus made me think of one of my favorite books, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” And this corresponds with one of my favorite movies (of the same name). Then when I was in the US Navy, the Nautilus made me think of the USS Nautilus (SSN-570), the first nuclear powered submarine in… well… all of history. I trained at the nuclear plant that was a copy of the one on the Nautilus. Years later, I had the opportunity to visit the actual submarine, although long-since decommissioned.

Today, I don’t think of either of those things. I think of the animal, the chambered nautilus. At our counseling center, we use the nautilus shell as a symbol of growth and transformation.

In its living form I think provides a metaphor for the church and for ministry.

How does a nautilus grow. It gets bigger…. a pretty common implication of growing. And as it grows, it outgrows its previous home. Different creatures have different ways of doing it.

Many animals shed their skins. This includes those with exoskeletons… but also animals like snakes. Hermit crabs move from borrowed lodging to a new borrowed lodging (much like humans do).

The Nautilus doesn’t do things this way. The nautilus starts very small in a small chamber shell. As it grows, it creates the shell that slowly spirals outward. As it moves out, it closes off the area in the shell it was once in.

It can seem like a bit of a waste. It is not efficient to carry those old chambers it doesn’t use, and cannot use. But in truth, it does use these chambers, but in a different way. The chambers have air in them. The air provides a couple of things. First, it provides neutral buoyancy. That actually makes it move MORE efficiently, not less. Second, it provides orientation giving it more stability. It maintains this orientation giving it better control as to where it goes in the water.

What's special about the shape of a Nautilus shell? Find out. | Human World  | EarthSky

I would argue that in the church, there is wisdom in this. Some churches seem to get stuck in a space that doesn’t fit it. Sometimes they embrace tradition a bit too much. But things go the other way as well. Some churches are so focused on being “current” that they lose their touch of history. I have been in groups where people get a bit giggly if one uses a song in worship that is more than 20 years old. I used to be a member of a church where the pastor stated publicly that he would change the decor in the church every couple of months to ensure that things would not become stuck in a long-term tradition.

This is too bad. The church I was raised in has a building that it 124 years old, and had existed as a congregation before that. Our sending church is 165 years old. As a Protestant, I am part of a movement that is at least 500 years old, and as a Christian, I am part of a movement that is almost 2000 years old.

The humans that make up the church (whether local church or universal church) are ephemeral. They are like soap bubbles… some bubbles endure for awhile, while some are barely present before they are gone… but all are relatively brief. And this thing we call the present (“The Now”) is even less enduring. It is more like a a bit of sunlight that glints off of one of those soap bubbles.

The church that rejects traditions and symbols are likely to lose identity… and can often careen off course.

While traditions, rituals, and symbols can hold back the church… shackling it to a past that has lost relevance, they can also give stability that leads to good direction. I have seen so many churches that have hired new pastors. These pastors don’t know the DNA of the church, and have no sense of the history of the church. In fact, arguably, the church members hardly know the church’s own identity themselves. When these pastors come in… they bring in their own novelties. Sometimes, these novelties are good and valuable. Often, however, they are simply bringing a tradition from a different church to replace the one that already is embedded in this church. And sometimes, it is worse than that. Sometimes the pastor saw a Youtube video, or went to some conference, that is marketing some innovation in theology or practice, and that pastor buys into it. Often the logic is, “Hey, it seems to work over there, so it must work here!”, without consideration of what differences in setting may mean to this (and often hardly considering what “works” mean in terms of the church vision and mission).

There needs to be a balance of embracing tradition and embracing change. There needs to be wisdom. Years ago, I was at a church council meeting. They were looking into searching for a new senior pastor. I suggested that we need to set up a pastoral search committee, get a list of possible candidates, and then do background checks in terms of their theology, track record, and behavior. I was told that this is not the way this church does things. Their method is this… the church council gets together and perhaps one of the members says that they know that “Ptr. A” is available and seeking to pastor a church. Then a member of the council contacts that pastor and invites him (since this was a church where the pastor would always be a ‘him’) to preach. If the preaching goes well… the church calls him. Interestingly, this is a tradition to reject tradition. It is tradition in that “this is the way we have always done things.” It is a rejection of tradition in that there is nothing in the process to ensure that the pastor is the right fit for the church. There is nothing to ensure that direction of the church is affirmed and maintained. I would argue that in this case, to honor the tradition of the church, one needs to reject some aspects of the tradition. Maybe my suggestion was not good, but if so, neither was their tradition in finding a pastor. The church could easily become like a nautilus without air in its shell and so moves more like an anemone that has broken free of its anchor point (awkwardly with little control of its final destination) than of a healthy nautilus. I have seen a lot of churches that have been DESTROYED by bringing in a new pastor with a radically different vision. I am thinking of one right now that lost most of its membership when it hired a pastor whose beliefs and practices were WAY out of line of church. After he left, members said, “Oh, we did not know what we were getting!” However, that was hardly an excuse since he had his own website that clearly articulated his views and practices that were in many ways in opposition to the church that brought him in.

Of course, this is not simply about churches. This applies to parachurch organizations as well. I worked at a Christian Summer Camp for five years. The first three years it was led by a director who had been there for many years. He was, perhaps, a bit set in his ways, but he understood how the camp worked, and kept it successfully doing its intended mission. The director retired and was replaced with a pastor who took over who had long been associated with the camp. He kept things pretty much the same. Was the camp “stuck in the past.” In some ways, probably Yes. But much of what they did was good and worked. The first year there, they hired a new director from a different camp. As we entered the camp schedule a pattern emerged. An issue would come up and one of us from the staff who had been around for awhile would give a response to the situation based on what was done before. The new director would then pipe in and say, “Oh yes… that is the way we have always done it.” He would say it in a funny voice as a sort of verbal meme. Then he would decide to do things in a different and innovative way. Eventually, I found out that what he was doing was NOT innovative. Rather it was simply what he did at the camp he used to be at. He was simply replacing traditions.

I can’t remember how many years he served there as director… but he eventually got in trouble by mocking the board of directors for making a decision that he did not agree with. Truthfully, I am not sure whether I agree with the director or with the board in the issue (that I won’t share here). However, the board decision was very much in line with the roots, traditions, and support structure of the camp. The director was removed and replaced with a friend of mine who had worked there many years, and did (I believe) a better job of innovating in a way that honors the DNA of the organization.

Innovating in ways that are in line with this DNA actually makes change happen easier, normally, than simply diving in and trying to force change. This is like the nautilus where the extra baggage it carries gives it neutral buoyancy… making it easier to move rather than harder.

I think I will stop here. If there are other things that one can learn from the nautilus, feel free to share it in the comments.

Doubting Doubting Thomas

I was teaching a class– “Research in the History of Missions.” I noticed something strange. One of the missionaries I asked a student to research, and all to respond to, was St. Thomas. That is, the first St. Thomas— “Doubting Thomas.” I was so surprised at how uncomfortable my students were with researching Thomas. The discomfort is that so much of what we know about Thomas is speculative or apocryphal. One way around this is by studying Thomas as a character, rather than a historical living human being. Of course, I teach at an Evangelical School… where that may strike people unpleasantly close to the arguments about studying the “Jesus of Faith” versus the “Historical Jesus.”

The problem to me however, is different. Pretty much every mission figure I asked them to research had an issue of a gap between the “missionary as portrayed” versus the “missionary who is.” In the case of St. Thomas, the uncertainty was seemingly greater because some of the sources have a certain ramifications. To accept the Gospel of Thomas as actually written by Thomas means giving a certain amount of authority to a work that is commonly viewed as “Gnostic.” are problems with accepting the other works ascribed to Thomas as actually his work as well.

But such discomfort should not cause discomfort, but reflection. After all, the fact that these works were in Syraic, may be suggestive that Thomas ministered in Syria. No guarantee of course. The Spanish stories of Saint Iago doesn’t mean that St. James had come anywhere near the place. However, numerous works ascribed to Thomas from one place does seem suggestive. The early tradition of Thomas (probably not Bartholomew) founding the church of Southern India doesn’t necessarily mean he founded it, but it probably at least suggests its founding by his disciples. The fact that the last Gospel written (John) was the only one that singled out the actions of Thomas suggest, perhaps, that he was more important apostle in his later years than in his early years. Such evidences don’t tell us much with certainty, but do point to impact. It seems probable that Thomas was an important missionary/apostle in Syria, and considering how Edessa, for example, was an early center of Christianity, suggests that he has had considerable impact. Research like this does not lead to certainty, but does lead to new questions, and tentative thoughts.

This is pretty common in history in general. We never get full unambiguous answers. From the Evangelical perspective, the Bible is fully reliable, including in its historical record. However, even from that perspective, it must be remembered that the historical record in the Bible is very incomplete, and our ability to fill in those blanks is highly doubtful. Also, our ability to accurately analyze and interpret what is explicitly stated is also doubtful.

When my students researched Herman of Alaska, Francis Xavier, Betsy Stockton, and others, they should have gone in with the same reflective uncertainty. Some like a certain scientific certainty… but no such thing exists. Science can’t accurately analyze anything in history since it is unrepeatable phenomenon.

We need the illiative sense (converging probabilities)— the skills of the historian and lawyer, not the astronomer or physicist.

Misusing Scripture for Personal Wants

Many (most?) of you are aware of the report that came out on Ravi Zacharias and some of his sexual misconduct (and the associated misuse of funds, as well as deception, to maintain the misconduct). I have friends who are real fans of Ravi, but I must admit I don’t really know much of his work. I did read a book he wrote, but that was literally decades ago (I remember liking it, but I can’t recall the title). I appreciate the fact that the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) chose to have the allegations thoroughly investigated and then reported the findings publicly. While I know some Christian leaders balked at the “unbiblical” route for handling the problem, I feel they did exactly the correct thing. In pastoral counseling, a common dictum is that “A family is as sick as its secrets.” One can take it further and say that “An organization is as sick as its secrets.” While I don’t recommend airing all of one’s dirty laundry all the time, the bigger the problem the sicker the organization becomes in trying to hide it.

I do know that there is one or two passages in the Holy Bible that COULD be interpreted as keeping church secrets secret. Paul recommended that church members try to handle their problems in-house rather than rely on outside authorities. That passage has been abused by so many for so long in the church, I would almost ask people to skip that passage when reading the Bible. Now, don’t take me too seriously on this point. All Scripture is useful, but my concern is that there has become such a culture of dubious beliefs within the church over the centuries around that passage, that people almost automatically read it wrong. The passage doesn’t say,

  • Hide your secret sins and evil behaviors from unbelievers.
  • Establish a culture within the church where people can behave in a predatory manner without any real repercussions.

No one, of course words it that way exactly, but it is pretty clear the passage is used that way by many. It is much the same with Matthew 18, a pattern that Jesus gave for addressing confrontation within the assembly. Many have weaponized it to maintain patterns of abuse— from both sides. Some use it as a pipeline for trying to push people out (rather than seeking reconciliation). Others try to turn the tables on the confronter, essentially saying, “I am not at fault, you are, because you didn’t follow Matthew 18” regardless of whether the situation fit the context of that passage.

With Ravi, part of what I found most disheartening was that he used his training in apologetics and rhetoric to manipulate women. A term used a fair bit in recent years is “grooming,” as in a predatory act of maneuvering another individual into a position of being compliant to abuse. The skills to groom and the skills to do apologetics often overlap. So when Ravi referenced Old Testament patriarchs who had more than one wife, or telling a woman to keep quiet about their actions or she will be responsible for potentially millions not coming to Christ, this is the rhetoric of manipulation. I really doubt Ravi really believed that (commonly pretty toxic) polygamous relationships in the age of the patriarchs is prescriptive for how men and women should ideally relate today. I also doubt that Ravi really believed that holding a religious leader accountable for his (or her) actions should be avoided to keep from dooming populations of people to hell. Most like, he did not believe either one, but used them because they suited his purposes in the moment.

And I get that on a certain level. Years ago (in my pre-Internet days) I was on Compuserve Religion forum. I was holding a religious thread with a person from a very different religious perspective. I recall no details of that conversation, except one. At a certain point, I shared a Bible verse to counter the other’s point. I felt guilty about it afterwards… and still do. Why? Because I misused the verse. I used the verse in a way that, I believe, confused the meaning of the Bible in context. The wording of the verse ripped from its context made it sound like I could use it as I did… but in context I was misusing it. And it is actually worse than that because the person I was talking to did not know the Bible well enough to know that I was speaking out of context. That is a pretty bad thing to do. If you don’t think it is bad, try to recall a time when someone grossly misuses your words to support something you do not believe. I really don’t think God likes that either.

I do recall a pastor who was speaking at a large gathering of other pastors. They were going to vote on something. He told the group, “You must vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ You cannot vote ‘Abstain,’ for the Bible says, ‘Let your Yeas be Yeas, and your Nays be Nays.” Of course, that is a huge misuse of the Bible, and the words of Jesus. However, to be a wee bit fair, perhaps the pastor was being funny, and he assumed (right or wrong) that these pastors knew their Scripture well enough so that there was really no deception or manipulation involved. I can’t be certain in this case.

But in the case of Ravi Zacharias, I do believe he used his position as a big name Christian leader (at least within one branch of Christianity) and his knowledge of rhetoric and apologetics for selfish purposes, not for truth. I believe the temptation for this is great. This is because the skills for apologetics (debate, rhetoric, logic) are neutral. That can be used for good or bad. But the temptation to “win” can overcome one’s desire for truth.

It is tempting to violate godly principles when it satisfies short-term desires. I have so many friends who would tell me during an election time, “We need to vote character.” Years later, they were saying, “No, we can ignore character. We need to vote political principles.” Of course, people can change… but it is pretty clear to me that in most cases their beliefs never changed. Their beliefs were alway, “Vote for Party A and vote against Party B,” and use whatever arguements (inconsistent or not) to try to fool people into voting their way.

I have no time for that, and as Christians, I believe we have a mandate to do better. Misusing arguments, logic, rhetoric, the Bible, and more to get our own desires satisfied is simply wrong. It is tempting… and I am sure I do it a lot more thatn I would be comfortable in realizing. But it is still wrong.

<If Ravi is actually innocent, then I hope he is vindicated. But the gospel does not depend on any one person, except God. If he is actually guilty, then siding with the gospel, and siding with the church, and siding with God, means siding with the victims.>

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.

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,