A Language of Foolishness

I have been reading a couple of books on Pastoral Theology. One is a classic:  “The Minister as a Diagnostician” by Paul Pruyser. The other is “The Word of God and Pastoral Care” by Howard Stone. Both of these books note a problem with chaplains and other ministers.  The problem is the rejection of theological language in ministry in favor of the language of psychology (or sociology or social work).

There can be a number of reasons for this. First, some of the language of theology is academic and little adapted to practical ministry. Second, the language of the social sciences are often more precise and agreed upon (at least at a specific point of time).

But another thing is that sometimes ministers are rather apologetic about their tradition. In chaplaincy work, one has to minister to people that do not necessarily respect or understand one’s tradition and language. As such, it is tempting to incorporate the language of the social sciences on the presumption that it will be more accepted by those they minister to. Additionally, some chaplains become embarrassed by the sloppy thinking and language of popularized (TV) Christianity. They don’t wish to be identified with such forms of Christianity. (I can understand that concern.)

Unfortunately, much is lost. The language of Christian theology is better for existential questions, meaning, and ethics than the social sciences. Additionally, religious faith and spirituality are of great importance for countless millions of people.

This is not just a problem in chaplaincy but in missions as well. We want to contextualize our faith… interpreting it in a way that is understandable and appreciated by those who are not Christians. The challenge is finding the balance.

At one end, one can use language and concepts that make no sense to the hearer. It may be clear to Christians… but not very effective in bringing truth to others.

At the other end, one can lose the language and Christian concepts in the quest of being relevant in the context.  Again, not very effective.

Clearly, the goal is between the two extremes, finding relevance in context while holding to the truth in the message.

Losing one’s heritage is not the solution to contextualize to another heritage. There needs to be a tension between these extremes.

I have been there. I was at a Christmas gathering with a diverse number of people. Some were Christian of one variety or another, some nominal and some not. Some were generally secular. A couple were Muslim. I struggled in finding a comfortable language for expressing a religious Christmas message in that diversity. Using language that makes no sense to the hearers is useless. But using vague inclusive language essentially doesn’t say anything either.

I am reminded of the words of St. Paul,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God   –I Corinthians 1:18

One must ultimately embrace a certain language of foolishness– a willingness to sounding foolish… while not embracing such a label as a badge of honor.

I am still struggling with this.

Dialogue and Different Faiths

talking-and-listening-copy

In “Acts of Faith,” Eboo Patel (2007), founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core, reflects on the issue of religious diversity. Mirroring W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” Patel suggests that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line” (p. xv). He goes on to defend a form of religious pluralism “that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole” (p. xv). This approach neither reduces truth claims to the lowest common denominator, nor relativizes religious truth. Rather, it emphasizes the need for open dialogue between persons from different traditions that enables them to learn from, and even experience, each other’s perspective. Given the reality of the “faith line,” the need for interreligious dialogue on

-Marion Larson & Sara Shady (2009) Interfaith Dialogue in a Pluralistic
World: Insights From Martin Buber and Miroslav Volf, Journal of College and Character, 10:3, ,  http://dx.doi.org/10.2202/1940-1639.1086

I will be teaching Interfaith Dialogue this coming semester. I really look forward to that course. The above quote by Larson and Shady, I think is excellent. I would, however, not use the term “religious pluralism” as they use it since for me the term relates to a soteriological viewpoint, not an inter-religious attitude.

The key point is that good dialogue does NOT relativize our view regarding truth and faith convictions. A person of definite beliefs and understanding of ultimate truths is not necessarily less committed to or competent in interfatih dialogue.

It also does not involve trying to come up with common beliefs, often done by wording things vaguely enough so that it sounds like we agree– ignoring important differences. I remember talking to a guy who was a 5-point Calvinist (I am probably more like a 2-1/2 point Calvinist, or maybe a non-Calvinist) who was trying to dialogue with me based on the thesis that “really we both believe the same thing.” Then he went on and described his beliefs with language so loose and vague that almost any Evangelical Christian could agree with the wording. However, using language that obscures beliefs is not good dialogue. The same problem comes from the “Well, don’t we all really worship the same God?” camp.

Dialogue comes from honesty and respect, and just a wee bit of humility. Beyond that, I don’t know. I am hoping to learn a lot this semester, along with my students.

 

A Question of Contextualization

“After a significant pastoral ministry indewri-mandir an urban setting in the United States, a former student of mine returned to his home country of India to minister. When visiting him, I asked, ‘What is the most significant obstacle you face?’ He paused and then said, ‘The biggest I’ve seen recently has been working to overcome the impression left by some well-intentioned American short-term missionaries. When they came to my village, they gathered and marched around a temple in the village, asking God to tear it down in the name of Jesus. Later one of the priests of the temple told me, ‘You Christians are no different than we Hindus. We practice Hindu magic, and Christians practice Christian magic. I know because I saw those American Christians walking around our temple seven times praying. That’s no different from what we do.’

Was this prayer-walk an example of contextualization or syncretism? I am sure they thought they were engaging in appropriate spiritual warfare and would likely cite the Old Testament story of Joshua marching around Jericho (Josh. 6) to confirm it. The Hindu priest, however, read their actions as a ‘Christian’ version of a Hindu magical practice. The long-term worker was left to sort through the mess after the short-termers returned home.”

-Story told by A. Scott Moreau in “Contextualization in World Missions,” 2012, p. 123

Bronislaw Malinowski separated between Religious Thinking and Magical Thinking.

  • Religious Thinking is the view that one should seek to serve or be guided by spiritual beings or forces.
  • Magical Thinking is the view that one should seek to be served by these spiritual beings or forces. The goal, then, is to find ways to manipulate these powers.

If one accepts these definitions, then the STMers were certainly acting on magical thinking just as the Hindu priest stated. Of course, Christians seek to serve God… but entreating God is not outside of the Christian faith, so Christians should be mostly religious in their thinking, but still a bit magical, in thought, as well (based on the above definitions).

As far as whether these STMers were doing good contextualization or syncretism (over-contextualization), I would argue that neither was the case. Probably they were guilty of non-contextualization. Most likely they were bringing over the theology of “spiritual warfare” that they were taught in the United States. It is entirely possible that proponents of this sort of “spiritual warfare” or “power encounter” (such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner, along with others, developed) can be faulted with syncretism, but not these short-termers. They just took what they were told in the US to do, and did it. Additionally, grabbing the Jericho story and applying it to their situation is no more contextualization than if one of them brought five stones and began to fling them at the temple using a sling (another perfectly “Biblical” activity).

But if this group was only guilty of poor contextual theology and perhaps confusing a Hindu priest (although he doesn’t sound particularly confused) that would be understandable. What is much more worrisome is that their behavior was a poor reflection on Christ.

There is, in my mind, no satisfactory justification for publicly praying down a temple (or mosque or something similar). You might be tempted to say that it is justifiable because we find some kings of Judah praised for tearing down Ashteroth poles and the like. But even if it was done as part of national policy, I don’t believe there is examples of Jewish believers going to other lands to desecrate or attack other temples in other lands.

Even if one feels that one could see justification in the Old Testament, a point I would dispute, no such justification exists in the New Testament.

  1.  Jesus did not do it. He reacted to sacrilege of the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Decapolis, Galilee, and more, He certainly had opportunity to decry alien places of worship, but we have no record that he had done so.  In John 4, he referred to the worship place of the Samaritans, but outside of pointing to the correctness of Jews in this matter, spoke nothing against the place or the people who worshiped there. (That is not to say that the Hasmoneans before or the Byzantines after were so respectful.)
  2. With Paul the evidence is even stronger. In Acts 17, we find him speaking publicly to the Areopagus without disrespecting the Athenian beliefs. Also, in Acts 19:35-41, we find the clerk in Ephesus defending Paul and Silas:

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

But there is more:

3.  There is no way that people will recognize the love of Christ in people seeking destruction of a people’s treasured structure. In a somewhat parallel even here in Baguio City a few years ago, pastors and missionaries were joyous that they had managed to prevent the building of a mosque in the city. But why be overjoyed? The blocking of such a building was very temporary, it was probably illegal in a country that supports freedom of religion, and certainly helped poison a positive of witness of Christians in the Muslim diaspora here.

4.  It is inconsistent with the Golden Rule. If one is bothered by others attacking, destroying, or praying against church buildings, than one should certainly not take any of those stances against other houses of worship.

I think that if they truly felt the need to pray against the Hindu temple, they could have done so quietly and privately. Why hamper Christian ministry by behaving publicly in such a disrespectful manner?

(By the way, I do strongly recommend A. Scott Moreau’s book. It is a great expansion of Bevan’s book on Contextual Theology. One can click on the title after the top quote to get more info on it.)

7 Rules of Dialoguing

How does one do interfaith dialoguing? From the John Hick camp comes the idea that both must relativize their own beliefs. That is difficult to do in practice, and hardly seems appropriate for many— suggesting a sort of virtue in weak convictions.

A better, in my mind, view comes from an article (written in Afrikaans, one of many many languages I cannot read) from South Africa. I am drawing from someone else’s blog– a South African who can read that language. It all ties together with “Seven Rules for Dialogue Between Christians and non-Christians” by Max Warren. So rather than rehash anymore, I would suggest clicking on the various blog posts by

So… Yes… this is a blog of a blog or an article of an article.

     Introduction Blog:         Click Here

     First Rule: Acceptance of our Common Humanity:     Click Here

     Second Rule:  Divine Omnipresence:    Click Here

     Third Rule:  Accepting the Best in Other Religions:      Click Here

     Fourth Rule:  Identification:   Click Here

     Fifth Rule:  Courtesy:  Click Here

     Sixth Rule:  Interpretation:    Click Here

     Seventh Rule:  Expectancy:   Click Here

 

Fear and Power in Ministry, and Five Encounters

I just recently did a short talk on Folk Islam. Not the center of my expertise, but our regular speaker was not able to make it. So I tried to position the talk from an area of greater strength for me… anthropological reflection. So I showed the classic cultural triangle.

Cultural triangle

“Western” Cultures are more interested in Guilt/Forgiveness. “Eastern Cultures are more focused on Shame/Honor, while (so-called) tribal cultures emphasize fear and power.

The orange region tends to be the cultural setting of most Christians, while the green region tends to be the cultural setting of many, but not necessarily all, of other “great religions.” This arguably includes Islam.

The range is dependent on three factors:

  • The Broader culture. An adherent to a religion in a broader culture that is, for example, honor-shame focused would tend to share that focus.
  • Religious Denomination. Denominations tend to needs in a specific region or range on the triangle. For example, I was raised Fundamentalist Christian. There is a strong proclivity toward Guilt and Forgiveness. Charismatic groups are more like the half-way point between Guilt/Forgiveness and Fear/Power.
  • Religious Class. Religions have Formal Religion and Folk Religion. Formal Religion tends to have “religious thinking”— with the adherence to formal doctrines and having the goal of serving spiritual powers. Folk Religion is more emotional rather than doctrinal, and tends towards “magical thinking”— seeking to manipulate (rather than be manipulated by) the spirit work. Folk Religion tends more toward the Fear/Power side of things while Formal Religion (at least of major, non-primal, religions) is away from that vertex of the triangle.

Since the vast majority of most religions are more folk practitioners than formal practitioners, one has to deal with the fear/power side of things more. I noted that for Folk Islam, Charismatics, and probably to a lesser extent Pentecostals, have an advantage over Conservative Evangelicals because their cultural center is closer on the cultural triangle.

That brought up the question, not surprisingly, as to what Conservative Evangelicals can do to reach Folk Muslims. Two bad solutions present themselves above. Becoming “charismatic” (unless of course one decides to based on personal theological reflection) as a means to connect more with Folk Islam seems a bad idea, as is becoming a Folk Christian. While the distance may be reduced, it is reduced by violating one’s own personal integrity. Another bad solution is syncretism… mixing one’s religion with the religion of another to make it more palatable. In my mind, Charles Kraft did that in taking the Fear-Power orientation and spirit world of West African religions and redefining it with Christian language. (Not everyone agrees.)

Some better solutions I believe are here (although they might sound a bit at times like the options above).:

  1.  Reduce cultural distance. Enculturation comes through interacting in and seeking to understand the behavioral and cognitive patterns of a culture. Removing distance culturally does not undo one’s beliefs, but it may broaden them. After all, Jesus was not only an atoning sacrifice, but was also a liberator, and bestower of honor. Understand what the people are most concerned about. They may not be most interested in Heaven. They may not be most interested in forgiveness. They may be most interested in family, community, health, and prosperity. One doesn’t necessarily have to redesign Christian doctrine to these different priorities, but it should speak prophetically to these concerns.
  2. Be open to the possibility that God will demonstrate Himself through power. I have little time for those who feel that God constantly does demonstrate Himself through power. It tends to lessen focus on God’s more common method of working through the weak, the foolish, and the vulnerable. It also puts pressure on people to “fake it,” label as from God what was not from God. However, God has power, and it seems like, especially in situations where the Gospel message is first entering a community, God will demonstrate power as a sign.
  3. Focus on symbols and rituals. Power is often seen in amulets, talismans, incantations, and various rituals. I don’t recommend totally embracing this worldview (wiping handkerchiefs on a religious icon, or getting them “blessed” by a televangelist) adding to local beliefs on contagious magic. But one can’t simply throw away these things and assume that there is not a vaccuum that will be filled by something else. Consider rituals. Rituals are tied to lifecycle, to crises, and to the calendar. In each case, they provide comfort in the providence of God (or god, or gods) that the future is secure. Rituals and symbols can and should be used to provide comfort, while helping them understand that true faith is more relational than magical.

Consider Five major “Encounters”

  • Power Encounter.  The interaction of the power of God with the powers (whether spiritual, natural, or human) within a people.
  • Truth Encounter.  The interaction of the truth of God with the false beliefs within a people
  • Allegiance Encounter.  The interaction of the call of God with the prioritizations/allegiances within a people.
  • Cultural Encounter.  The interaction of the Biblical perspective and behavioral patterns with the culture of a people.
  • Love Encounter.  The interaction of the Love of God with the selfish valuations within a people.

What should be done first? Love Encounter should always be first, I believe. To encounter a community demonstrating God’s love is always foundational. In folk religion, faith is more emotional than cognitive, so love encounter is even more critical.

But what is next? For some cultures it might be truth encounter… but for Folk Religionists, power encounter tied to cultural encounter hand-in-hand probably comes next. After all, folk religionists commonly are linked to their faith through their culture and their priority of power to overcome fear.

Next would be truth encounter. After a foundation of God’s love, and the bridges of God’s demonstrated concern and power translated through culture, God’s message must be made clear in the language, thought patterns, and priorities, of the people..

Ultimately, there must be a change of allegiance. They must choose to follow Christ or the old way. Of course, following Christ does not destroy all aspects of the old way, nor, on the other hand, should it syncretize it. It should transform and fulfill it.

An interesting thing to note is that the five encounters start and end with emotions. It starts with dealing with love and fear and ends with dealing with trust. The other two are more cognitive, truth and culture… dealing with symbols and meanings. None of the five are, strictly speaking, addressing behavior directly. Behavior is the natural fruit of spiritual transformation. Spirituality is the intersection of power and meaning (ideas and values). If behavior does not change, one must question the spiritual transformation.

Strangers in the Land

<NOTE: The image here for vulnerability, I am using as synonymous with weakness. Some don’t feel that way. For them, vulnerability is a virtue while weakness is a well… weakness. I would suggest that both, properly understood, are virtues, and… well… strengths.>

Two passages with regard to the life of Abraham are especially meaningful to me.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”    -Genesis 12:1-3

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.    -Hebrews 11:13-16

These passages make it clear to me that Abraham left a place he knew as home and never reached a new place he considered home. While God told him in Genesis that he would be made a great nation, the Hebrews passage makes it clear, that the concept to Abraham in no way suggested a governmental power, or a nation of possession. In fact, the only land he owned was a burial site.

Let’s consider some implications of this.

  • Abraham is to be a blessing, but to be a blessing as a stranger among those who are part of the power structure.
  • Abraham, and arguably Abraham’s descendants, is not presumed to “bless” from a position of power but from a position of weakness.

We struggle with this. In the book of Joshua, the descendents of Abraham (through Jacob) set up a homeland, a place of power, and were to drive out or kill those who oppose. Of course, this fact is also challenged by the Mosaic Law that stated that one should always be kind and generous to strangers, foreigners, aliens. After all, the Israelites were aliens in Egypt. (Being powerless should always inspire one to be kind and generous when one has power.) It seems that the Mosaic Law expected the long-term normal was that Israelites, descendants of Abraham, would always live with those who were not. Israel was never very good at being a blessing to those around as long as they were a political entity. They spent too much time taking care of themselves, and fighting the “enemy”– both internally and externally.

This all is relevant to us, because Jesus and the Apostles always spoke and wrote from the presupposition that Christians would always live as strangers within larger (non-Christian) communities. The assumption was that they would be salt and light to those around them. One could argue Jesus and His disciples did not foresee Osrhoene, Armenia, Roman Empire, Ethiopia, Holy Roman Empire, and the series of “Christian nations” supporting what sometimes gets called Christendom. <But Christendom is now dead… and we as Christians, I argue, should be happy with this.>

But maybe it is not about what Jesus and His disciples foresaw or did not foresee. Maybe the point is that Christians ARE SUPPOSED TO LIVE AS STRANGERS/FOREIGNERS/ALIENS IN WHATEVER LAND THEY LIVE. If that is the case, there are some things we need to consider:

  • The concept of the “Christian Nation” is flawed from the start. Islam embraces earthly kingdoms, but Jesus actively rejected the concept of an earthly kingdom… both in word (My kingdom is not of this world, John 18:36), and in deed (opposing Satan’s lure to human governmental power). If other religions are seduced by this lure, that is their own call. For Christians, we should not.
  • While we may grieve for the evil behaviors that we see around us, our job is to live holy lives, and generously, sacrificially, help those around us, in word and in deed. Our call is not to try to legislate conformity to Christ’s standards.
  • We should show solidarity and concern for Christians who have the misfortune to live in regimes that hold to the unconscionable behavior of mistreating Christians because they have the power to do so. We should be able to have enough empathy as human beings for that. But as Christians, our empathy should be greater, and we should show real concern for minority groups among us.
  • David Tracy in “Plurality and Ambiguity” notes the Religion is always meant to be revolutionary… anti- (or at least counter-) cultural. The reason is that it challenges the way things are, and points to how things are supposed to be… to challenge people to see the “Ultimate Reality” not the shallow, vilolent, self-satisfied reality around us. Once religion (Christianity especially, but others as well) assumes a mythic role (supporting culturally the status quo) it has lost its role as a religion. Thus, Christianity is not part of the State this side of Heaven.

I have lived as an alien, stranger, foreigner, in the Philippines for 11 years. Although the Philippines is a pretty friendly place… I will probably always be a bit of an outsider. That is okay. It does help me see the other side a bit. As an alien, I am weak. Living in the Philippines, I also live in a weak country overshadowed by a much stronger country.

Christians should spend time embracing weakness. Christianity has always been at its best operating from a position of weakness… rather than from a position of military, or political strength. Maybe one day we as Christians can embrace the words of St. Paul:

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.  2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Good Littering

Despite living in the Philippines for 10 years, my Tagalog is still pretty poor. Living in Baguio City, a very English-friendly city, does not help. Having a quadrilingual wife also has allowed me to be slack in my language. However, a couple of phrases I learned quickly here:

BAWAL UMIHI DITO

BAWAL MAGTAPON DITO

The first one says “Do not urinate here.” The second says “Do not litter here.” These are written all over the place along roads. Apparently people need a reminder.

This got me reflective about littering (not so much about urinating). Littering is essentially to place things where they do not belong. Receptacles are available to put stuff in, and when you put them in other places outside of these receptacles… well, that is littering.

I have heard of evangelistic littering. Jehovah’s Witnesses forget their newsprint quality magazines lying on tables of places they visit. A visitor to our house decades ago “forgot” his Book of Mormon. It had a tract inside explaining how the book predicted a lot of events, such as the coming of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Since there are no copies of this book existing prior to the early 1800s, and the style of the writing is at best a sort of AV1611, hard to see who would be impressed by this. But who knows.

Evangelical Christians have also tried this. They leave tracts and things in public places hoping that someone will read them and respond to them. Of course, people in most places have been pretty innoculated to tracts. So many of them are horrible anyway. So many focus on a god that most people would not desire to worship or follow. Because of the failure of littering tracts, some have switched to littering CDs or DVDs. For awhile, at least, there was a window of time where such littering would draw interest enough to look and listen. Not sure… this time may have passed.

Language has its limits. Although people like to talk about the power of the message of God, that power can often demonstrate itself in the hardening of peoples hearts and tearing apart relations. That is not a justification for not sharing the word… but simply a recognition that the Word of God needs to be expressed and interpreted within the context of Christian Love (truth, power, and allegiance encounter fail without an initial and continual demonstration of love encounter).

Returning to littering… is there good littering? I believe good littering occurs when we litter… good, or goodness. Jesus talked considerably on good littering. He noted that in most cultures, doing good things is generally reserved for (properly receptacled in the context of) relatives, nice neighbors, friends, good people. Jesus suggested that goodness should be littered… not limited to these “proper” receptacles. They should be thrown around carelessless to strangers, aliens, and enemies. I would suggest that such littering can be at times planned and intentional… but the expression “random acts of kindness” certainly has its appropriate moments of application as well.

Since it is pretty obvious that Christians are in a war of ideas and ideologies and cultures that at times escalates into rage and violence… our best weapons are not bombs and drones and “riling up the troops”. Getting continuously “shocked” at the inhumanity of humans through social media doesn’t help much either. (Seriously… how can anyone who wasn’t raised in a cave on a different planet be shocked at atrocities that people do to other people.) Even proclamation of the word, has its limits without a proper context.

God’s message of hope should be proclaimed in a mission field that has been carelessly (and carefully) littered with God’s love. When the clutter becomes so thick that clean-up crews cannot keep up in hiding and dumping it… people are ready to listen.

The Supreme Parable

Quote of Lesslie Newbigin.  “The Open Secret,” chapter 4:

The supreme parable, the supreme deed by2009-01-019-newbigin which the reign of God is both revealed and hidden, is the cross. When Israel rejected Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news of the reign of God, there were two roads which (humanly speaking) he might have taken. One would have been to withdraw with his disciples to the desert and there, like the contemporary communities of which we know from the Qumran documents, pray and wait for God’s action to establish his reign. The other would have been to take the way of the contemporary “freedom fighters” and seek to establish the messianic order by force. Jesus did neither. He led his disciples right into the Holy City at the season dedicated to the memory of national liberation. He chose a mount, however, that suggested a humble royalty, a kingly meekness. He challenged the leaders of the nation at the very center of their power, and he accepted in his self the full onslaught of the powers that refuse the reign of God. Here is the supreme parable: the reign of God hidden and manifest in the dying of a condemned and excommunicated man; the fullness of God’s blessing bestowed in the accursed death of the cross. 

I believe this parable applies to Christians today as well.

1.  Some love the HAWK form of Christianity. Triumphalistic, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.” Spiritual warfare and Power Encounter as primary tools of ministry. The zealots/sicarii of the 1st century are alive and well, in words certainly… and occasionally in deeds. Some appreciate real weapons of war. Others may not use weapons but maintain the attitude of war.

2.  Some choose the DOVE approach of Christianity. For me, this is the radical separatism of some. The focus is on purity and perfection. The “Benedicting Option.” The Essenes of the 1st century are also alive and well with groups today that fear the surrounding culture and pull back to a defensive position.

Both of these are “anti-culture.”One could add two more groups… groups that are perhaps a bit too “pro-culture.”

3. One might suggest that the Herodians of the 1st century are alive and well. Although we don’t know much about them, we may assume that they were cultural accommodationists…letting politicians and political movements greatly influence their own form of faith.

4. Some might argue the Sadducees as being a bit similar in practice… pragmatists first, people of faith second.

Generally, I think most Christians in the countries I have spent time in are accommodationists and pragmatists… although Hawk and Doves have their place (especially in the US).

Jesus should be a challenge to all four groups. Challenging culture, but not anti-cultural. Subversive but non-violent. Pure but culturally interacting.

Later in the same chapter of the Open Secret:

‘In what way has Jesus brought the reign of God near?’ Negatively I have said it has not been done by the introduction into history of a power which is manifest to the natural perception of men and women and which will therefore progressively overcome and eliminate the powers which oppose it. Positively I have said that the coming of Jesus has introduced into history an event in which the reign of God is made known under the form of weakness and foolishness to those to whom God has chosen to make it known, and that it is made known to them so it may be proclaimed to all.

Christian Missions and Ministry would do well to follow Jesus not these other popular models.

 

 

Giving the Devil his due… sort of.

A couple of things have come up here that bring up issues regarding demon possession. One was some discussions on-line that point out that a large percentage of Evangelicals in US do not believe in “mental illnesses” but believe that such phenomena are demon possession or demon oppression or such. The other was a training at seminary here about the relation of psychology and theology, and demon possession came up as an issue.

I suppose I should care about the issue, being involved in a counseling center. I should care … both as a question of reality, and a question of perception. After all, I live in the Philippines where paganism, as well as folk Catholicism, and American-made Christo-paganism, are pretty big.

Being honest here, howeve, I don’t really care. Maybe I should. A few indidents soured me to the topic. I read a Christian book on demonism when I was in college decades ago only to learn later that the writer was a fraud. Then I read a book by the most popular Protestant exorcist (at the time at least) in America. His poor scholarship really bothered me. Later, I was forced to attend a “deliverance service” (I was an employee at the place). People were barking like dogs, twitching, and screaming and such. It seemed strange to me that people connected the weirdness with God and worship as revealed in the New Testament. Studying theology in seminary, it became pretty obvious that much of the commonly revered beliefs in the area of demonology are based on tradition and theories that have gained credibility by verbal repetition, not by sound exegesis. A few months ago, I was asked here if I wanted to attend an exorcism. Truthfully, I have no more interest in that than I would have in attending an interpretive dance workshop. So my comments here are based more on analysis than experience.

But I do have some concerns or issues even in my ignorant state.

1. Symptomology.  A concern I have with the “diagnosis” of demon possession is that it seems to base symptoms on Biblical descriptions from 2000 years ago. Why is that a problem? Because the two defining features of demon possession (if it is a literal, rather than metaphoric condition) is: (a) the “disease” is a sentient being, and (b) it is a “disease” with the possibility of having an individualized agenda.

Why does this matter? Because if demon possession is a literal condition of a non-corporeal sentient being with an agenda inhabiting or oppressing an individual… there is no reason to assume symptoms would be consistent. In fact, one would have to assume that symptoms can and do vary (in fact there is considerable variation even in the New Testament). Today, in first world countries, the manic state sometimes described as demon possession as seen in the New Testament would be of no use. A wild person would simply be packed away in a mental institution and kept drugged passive (“doesn’t matter who is sitting in the driver’s seat when you remove the spark plugs”). Any purpose of the demon beyond residency would be wasted. Here in the Philippines where the manic often still share the streets with the rest of us, it is possible that such classic possession might be witnessed because it could have some affect in the culture. In first world nations… one might see a “Columbine”-type incident as closer to what one could suspect as being a more effective demonic activity, and so a more likely symptomology.

2. Externalization. A problem I have with those who are quick to identify demon possession (or more commonly oppression) is that it often comes off as an excuse… and opportunity NOT to grow and learn. Generally in counseling situations it is useful to determine what things one has responsibility over and what things one does not. With demon oppression, one is not really responsible for one’s feelings or actions, but one is not even responsible to confront an offending party (beyond paying an “expert” to confront in one’s place). My fear is such externalization perpetuates a sickly spiral. I have seen those interviewed on tv who keep going back to be “freed” again and again from demons. I feel like they have grabbed hold of a diagnosis that allows them not to change (because they have no responsibility in the matter) and are receiving a treatment based on a probable misdiagnosis. I have also known people who seem to always be “hit up” by demons. One I know seems to have regular problems with the “demon of despair” or the “demon of procrastination.” Not only is this Frank Perretti-ish view of the world not well-founded Biblically, but (again) it seemed to be a way for him not to deal with some easily identified issues in his life.

3. Mental Illness Diagnosis. Some Evangelical Christians like to make the argument that there is no such thing as mental illnesses. Rather they are issues of sin (in some cases… it certainly could be, or at least triggered by personal sins, being sinned against, or living in a generally sin-damaged world) or of demons (who knows?). The first problem is that mental illness do absolutely exist– they actually have to. Why? Because mental illness are not things of substance but are simply labels of loci of symptoms. They exist as a definition, by definition. In this sense, you can “create” a mental illness as well. Simply take a collection of symptoms and give it a name.

The question is not whether mental illnesses exist. The question is whether they are useful. The usefulness points in two directions… causation and treatment. If a mental illness has a cause, it can be prevented, or at least minimized. If it has a treatment, it can be cured or at least managed. The question is not whether a mental illness exists but whether it is useful. If it does not point to a reliable causation or treatment, it is not a useful label. To simply gainsay a mental illness label without reviewing its effectivity in determining causation or treatment is… well, it’s pretty lazy and potentially damaging.

The same is true on the religious side. Jobs friends sought to label Job’s condition (boils and other crises) as having sin as its causation. Others in the New Testament sought to label a blind man’s condition as from personal sin or that of his parents. Both misdiagnosed. And in misdiagnosing they had the additional failing of providing a flawed treatment plan. The same concerns exist in demon possession. If it is misdiagnosed, there would be an error in causation (thus potentially leading to recurrences) and error in treatment (leading to perpetuation or even exacerbation of the problem).

<Of course, there is a subtle twist to this. If demon possession is caused by a sentient being with an agenda, it is possible it could mimic the symptoms of a recognized mental illness with a different causation and treatment. That could be a challenge. However, in pastoral care, we combine psychological care and historical pastoral treatments, with prayer and religious symbols and rites. In the end, if the problem is treated and goes away, it may not matter its causation.>

4. Ambivalence: I see a lot of what I might call… ambivalence… regarding the demons in the Bible. Take for example the relationship between demons and idols. In the Bible, there are references that demons are associated with idols. Deuteronomy 32:16-17, Psalm 106:35-38, and I Corinthians 10:20 are the most direct (although the hebrew term for demon, sedim, in Deuteronomy and Psalms may not have much to do with our present image of demon). But the majority of Biblical texts point to idols as being nothing more than human construct… having no power whatsoever. Jeremiah 10, Isaiah 40, and Habakkuk 2:18-19 are among many to focus on the powerlessness of idols, rather than some connection to demonic powers. Paul’s theological construction on meat sacrificed to idols starts from the premise that there is no power associated with idols… except the power people give them to affect their own minds and consciences.

So how does one reconcile demons and powerless idols? Perhaps the answer is that demons are powerless. Or perhaps the connection to idols is a rhetorical device rather than a statement of reality. This sort of thing is found elsewhere in the Bible such as in Isaiah 46:1-2 where the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo are looking down from the heavens unable to protect their own idols from harm. The rhetorical device contrasts useless, powerless gods (and demons?) of pagan idolatry with the one true God, Yahweh. Or perhaps something else.

There is also a bit of ambivalence between illness and demons. Some problems in the Bible are clearly identified as demonic (such as the demoniac of the Gadarenes). Some seem to clearly have nothing to do with demons (the injured man in the parable of the Good Samaritan, or at least 9 of 10 Egyptian plagues). Some illness are not identified as to their basic cause (the woman with years of bleeding, Lazarus’ illness). Healing in the Bible varies wildly as well, from public health and quarantine practices to medical first aid, to a wide variety of different miraculous practices. One is left with the realization that IF all illnesses are demonic in origin, there there is simply no consistency of treatment for demonic oppression. One can use medicine, public policy, or miraculous activities to get rid of demons.

I am reminded of the story of Capo de Vaca (“Cow Head”), a man who was supposed to have been stranded with some shipmates in precolonial Florida. They travelled across what is now the southern United States to get back to “civilization.” To survive they were forced (“do it or die”) to act as exorcist healers by the native peoples. Perhaps their strange appearance and language made them seem good candidates for this role. Capo de Vaca noted with surprise how effective they were. These were not necessarily pious men. They were sailors and as a former sailor myself, I can vouch for their probable impiety. One, in fact, was a Muslim conscript. They used the religious symbols and prayers they knew. Many were healed this way. Was this God empowering them? Was this demonstration of the power of the faith of the recipients? I don’t know… ambiguity again. Clearly it was not the faith or piety or methodology that gave them success.

5. Charlatans. Let’s be fairly obvious right now. Much alternative medicines have aspects that are beneficial. The problem is that one does not always know which ones are useful, on what occasions they are useful, and who is trustworthy in carrying out the diagnosis and treatment. Since exorcism, especially in Protestantism, is a rather self-appointed role… it lends towards charlatanism. So even if there are legitimate exorcists and legitimate uses of exorcisms… the question is whether one could wade through the cesspool of frauds, and the less unpleasant, but still dangerous, kind-hearted but self-deluded practitioners.

Conclusion: So what do I suggest (in my own way based on limited experience)? I would suggest the recognition that God, others, and the internal assets of the client are always potential aids in dealing with mental problems. As such, presuming a treatment that takes one or more out of the picture is unhealthy. If the physiological and psychoemotional symptoms suggest a diagnosis with a treatment regimen… it is most often wise to test the process. However, that should not be done in exclusion to the person’s faith, effectively including religious rituals and symbols in the life of the client, and the role of God as healer.