Should a Missionary be a Theologian or a Dogmatist… or Neither?

A missionary serves in a place where he or she must teach new believers. But should this role be handled as a Theologian or a Dogmatist?

The term “dogmatist” is commonly used in a negative sense. This alone may indicate that I think it is the wrong answer to the question I pose. Let’s however, consider a more gentle definition. Two more perjorative definitions are:

Definition #1: a person insists that her beliefs amount to knowledge, and this leads her to insist that others are ignorant.

Definition #2: a person who believes too strongly that their personal opinions or beliefs are correct.

Gentler Definition: a person who inflexibly considers himself or herself knowing the truth and seeks to train others to agree.

This definition sees the person as having a great deal of conviction regarding beliefs and sees the person as focused on preserving and transmitting those beliefs with as little change as possible.

In a previous post, (https://munsonmissions.org/2016/04/15/between-the-normal-and-the-novel/), I had quoted Charles Hodge:

“If your review shall have the effect of commending the views which they advocate to the favorable regard of our younger theologians, I shall rejoice. I have but one object in my professional career and as a writer, and that is to state and to vindicate the doctrines of the Reformed Church. I have never advanced a new idea, and have never aimed to improve on the doctrines of our father. Having become satisfied that the system of doctrines taught in the symbols of the Reformed Churches is taught in the Bible, I have endeavored to sustain it, and am willing to believe even where I cannot understand. … I feel this the more because may of our brethren in this country have expressed great dissatisfaction with those articles. I am persuaded, however, that they contain nothing more than the common Protestant doctrine on the subject.”

-Quoting Charles Hodge in “The Life of Charles Hodge” by Archibald Alexander Hodge (published 1881) https://archive.org/details/lifecharleshodg00hodggoog . Note that this passage is quoted in part by Edward William Fudge in “Hell: A Final Word”)

Hodge, based on the quote above could be described as a dogmatist. He believes that his denominational flavor of Christian theology is correct and so he embraces simply passing it on to his students. In this sense, he really might not be called a theologian, but rather a conservator of past doctrine (a dogmatist). Of course, a study of his work may show that he did actually attempt to express the Bible creatively in new settings. I am simply referring to the quote as the basis of describing him as a dogmatist.

The theologian must create the bridge between God’s revelation and human culture (since theology is a human rather than divine construct). And since human culture is constantly in flux, and theology must change.

Based on this, if nothing else, a missionary must be a theologian rather than a dogmatist. However, we should not jump on this too quickly. After all, a missionary serves a mission board, and/or a denomination, and/or a church. As such, a missionary is commonly expected to take a conservative role in terms of doctrines. A missionary is likely to be chastized for choosing to do Eucharist in a manner different from the sender. Generally, the supporters would much prefer a dogmatist.

On the other hand, the missionary is also expected to be an effective communicator of God’s message. As such, the message should not come out garbled or deceptive to the recipient culture. The senders certainly don’t want the missionary to confuse or mislead the hearers. As such, they certainly want the missionary to do more than simply indoctrinate with little consideration for the culture and symbols of the hearers.

Of course it could be said that a missionary doesn’t have to be either. A missionary can simply evangelize and churchplant and leave theologizing and indoctrinating to others. In practice, this cannot be done. In ministry, there is a road with theologizing at one end and dogmatizing at the other. In between are different shades of each. In ministry you don’t have to be at either extreme of this road, but you do not have the option of simply not being on the road.

Much like a lot of things in the Christian faith, the concept of “Creative Tension.” Missionaries are cultural “Agents of Change” and “Agents of Preservation.” But this exists with Theology as well. One serves one’s denomination and church. But one also serves God. The priority is God, meaning faithfulness to His message. To do this means to preserve the message through creatively contextualizing it in a new culture.

However, one is also part of a supportive community and tradition. I have seen pastors and missionaries simply ignore their heritage, things can turn prety ugly fast.

TEN YEARS OLD!!

On October 25 is the 10th anniversary of this website. Kind of exciting. Ten years ago was also when my wife and I formally launched our ministry along with our partners— Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center. It is now are major ministry. I guess October 2010 was a big year for us.

I will share a couple of posts here.

The first is the third post I put on this website: “The Role of Church as a Communal Organism.”

https://munsonmissions.org/2010/10/26/the-role-of-church-as-a-communal-organism/

The other is a new one by Carrie Vaughn and shared through Jackson Wu’s Patheos site: “A Plea to Mission Agencies.” by

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/2020/10/19/a-plea-to-mission-agencies/

College-Age Missions Questions

I was never a part of one of those groups— mission organizations that focus on college-age students both as active ministers and recipients of ministry. I won’t name groups because there are so many of them (both big and little) and they vary so much. I have often wondered about them.

As I said I wasn’t directly part of such a group. In college, I worked at a Christian summer camp for 9 or 10 weeks a year. That was very intense ministry, but it was temporary— having no impact on the remaining 40+ weeks a year. I also did ministry work at a children’s home— 2 hours a week of youth ministry on Sundays and 2 hours a week of tutoring on Tuesdays. Again, these had little impact on the remaining 164 hours a week.

The groups I am talking about are ones that:

  • Presses for a strong group identity. Your primary identity is being in this particular group. In some cases, this identity competes with their church identity.
  • Use language (missionary, minister, and so forth) that identifies them in recognized strong vocational roles with high expectations, rather than words such as volunteer or member.
  • Places them in a strong parachurch hierarchy with high expectations of obedience and submitting one’s own will to the vision and mission of the group.
  • Has high standards for busy-ness and ministering, with metrics kept to track the activity.
  • Often also serve as fund-raisers for the organization— either directly trying to fund the organization, or indirectly fund it by raising their own support (which is given to the organization)

Are these good or bad? Or a bit of both? I have seen some of the tracking used for some groups. They will ask their “missionaries” to weekly or monthly to list their evangelistic contacts and their responses. They will ask stats on follow-ups and discipleship. To me these are probably reasonable things to ask, especially if the young adults are being supported financially by the organization. They may ask regular feedback on their “spiritual life” as least in terms of spiritual disciplines, life milestones/significant events, and relational conflicts. These can be reasonable if the organization is doing real one-on-one mentorship. Otherwise it may be a bit intrusive. Some will ask for weekly or monthly updates on all the contacts the young adult has done to raise support and what responses and promises have been made to give to the ministry.

This last one is a bit creepy. I have on occasion had people from these groups come to try to raise money from my wife and I. I think there is still the vestiges of the old belief that Western missionaries have money in the collective mindset in Asia. This myth is generally not true, and each year becomes less and less true.

In theory, I don’t have problems with young people seeking to raise money for their ministry. In some cases it makes sense. My wife and I have done almost NO fundraising, and we have been able to survive…. but I in no way want to suggest that this should be normative. I don’t agree with Corrie Ten Boom that her personal conviction not to do formal fundraising should be universalized to everyone. (She only developed that conviction after she was well-known enough to not really need promote herself.) However, this issue does start to bring us into the “real problems” in my mind.

  1. Conflict between Parachurches and Churches. I like to say that the conflict between parachurches and churches is normal, because parachurches are parasitic and churches are selfish. This may be an oversimplification, but it is pretty true. Parachurches often seek to pull manpower and money out of the church. Sometimes, there is clear competition with churches. One large such organization famously encouraged their converts NOT to join a local church. A small organization that a friend of mine was part of decided to structure itself like a church to keep its members from being part of different local churches. Adding to that, young people going around and actively soliciting money from the deeper pockets of the church community, and one can see where some of the animosity comes from. I am not against parachurches. I have both founded parachurches and am (perhaps, depending on how one defines the term) a member of more than one presently. In the early years we got into some competitive conflict with at least one local church. We had to work hard to undo that and set up standards to avoid repeating that.

2. There is a risk of abuse. While we often think of those in the transition from teen years to adult years as stubborn and unmanageable, that is not necessarily the case. Some are genuinely seeking a sense of purpose and identity and lack the life experience to identify a good organizational relationship versus a bad. Some of the groups seem pretty legitimate in their recruiting and their team expectations. However, I have personally seen some that most definitely preferentially filter so as to have those who are more passive/malleable. I have seen some groups that use the “follow Christ versus follow family” inappropriately to drive a wedge between the young person and their own family/community. <Of course, this is not just a parachurch thing. Many churches do the same thing, and some utilize MLM principles to manipulate new members.>

3. Sometimes these types of ministries attract the wrong types of people. I have seen several religious leaders get involved with college-age ministries and it seems as if they do it because of power. Pastors, businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and more want to have power. Go online and look up books on leadership, and you will see there is a great thirst for power and influence both inside and outside of religious communities. The thing is that college-age ministries give opportunity to exercise power at a much higher level due to the fact that normal power dynamics are accentuated due to larger gap in age, experience, and finances. I have seen good people in these roles, but I have seen some who really power trip. I knew one who expected to have control over who dated and who married who in their organization. When they were involved in sports activities, he expected to be on the winning team every time. Things did not go well if this did not happen. Obviously we know all too well the religious leaders who utilized their influence and age difference to manipulate children and young adults for their own (often sexual) gratification.

4. Sometimes these parachurches are idealized and seen as models for churches. I have seen churches embrace vision and mission statements similar to these groups. I have seen churches embrace high pressure mission requirements and metrics— pressuring people to make promises regarding giving, evangelizing, discipling, and the like. At one time this seemed like a good idea to me. Churches aren’t doing enough and they should change to pull their own weight. But I have had to reconsider. I have been active in many many churches over the years. There are dead, lifeless, churches that I don’t understand why anyone attends. But there are probably good things about them. I have also seen churches that utilize some of the high pressure motivational tactics of parachurch groups and MLMs. These seem exciting at first because they feel like they are “doing something.” However, over time, the church begins to feel toxic. It doesn’t feel like a community. It doesn’t feel like a family. It feels like being a tool of the vision of the leader (again, a bit like an MLM… multi-level marketing business, since I haven’t identified the initials before). It feels like a place to avoid rather than attend. Then there are churches that focus on fellowship and community. They certainly have ministries and activities, but they don’t try to dominate the lives of their members, but enhance their lives. They don’t look like they are doing as much their parachurch counterparts, but I would argue that they are doing more of what they are called to do— be the body of Christ— the embodiment of, in some small way, the rulership of God on earth.

So are these groups bad. No. In fact, some have done some great things. But one has to watch out for the temptations. Bad leaders are not always easy to identify. They seem fine until the power they secretly (or even subconsciously) sought is not given. The temptations to control and manipulate. Years ago we ran a children’s ministry, and much of the volunteers were high school age, approaching college. It was amazing sometimes the level of investment they would make in ministry. It took a certain amount of leader discernment to ensure things do not go bad.

  • We would avoid trying to put a wedge between the worker and their family. In fact, we would, when we could, work with their families. On those rare occasions where there was tension between the volunteer and their family, we would tell them to honor their family wishes.
  • We made no pressure to come between their school responsibilities and their ministry responsibilities. Their school responsibilities come first. This (and the family one before) seem obvious but many groups do expect highest commitment.
  • We made no pressure to come between their church and their ministry responsibilities. Many of them chose to join the church we were part of. We had no problem with that, but those that did not we put ZERO pressure to switch churches. If anything we sought for them to stay at their present churches so that our ministry could seen as interdenominational, non-sectarian. (On more than one occasion we did actually have conflict with our own pastors because they wanted the ministry to be used as a way of pulling people into our own church.)
  • We created a very flat organizational structure with limited power dynamics. As such, the opportunity for abuse is limited, and the temptation towards positions of power is reduced.
  • We focused on opportunities to grow and do, rather than pressure and metrics to perform.

We did this successfully for a few years. We ended up shutting down the ministry after Typhoon Pepeng (2009) because we decided to change focus at that time. Many of the youth workers continued on in various church ministries, and one of the ministry sites continued on for another 10 years without our leadership. This reminds me of a story of sorts. When I worked at a Summer Camp, we got a new director. One thing he did early on was put up a sign that said that “No One is Indispensable.” Of course that is true, but it is equally true of leaders. I believe that a healthy organization can survive without its leader. And even if the organization shuts down, its members thrive in new places to serve. (This was certainly true at the Summer Camp. That leader was fired some time later, and the camp endured and even thrived.)

10 Years

Today is the 10 year anniversary of the formal launching of our organization, Bukal Life Care. But then I realized that we are approaching the 10 year anniversary of this website. My first post was on October 30, 2010. Now we are approaching 1200 posts.

I have not been posting much in the last few weeks and yet the view rates are up almost 50%. Not sure why, but I certainly appreciate the interest. I have been working on a Missions Theology book (that I MIGHT someday finish), lots of sorting papers, and lots of lots of house projects.

Below is the link to the 10 year post for Bukal Life Care

10 Year Anniversary

Getting One’s Message Heard, Lessons from the “4th Umke”

Stephen Larsen tells a story of the Umke,

“In the late fifties and early sixties a strange little man used to stand with his podium and flag on the corner of 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, across the street from Columbia University. He would preach

Soap-box

loudly and emphatically to whoever would listen, and even sometimes when there was no one there to hear. He was unquestionably sincere and hardworking in his evangelism. He was on that corner almost every day, rain or shine, even in winter. The only problem was that the man was almost incomprehensible. Finally, from listening to him several times and reading his literature, I began to get the gist of his message: he was a messiah, at least potentially. He called himself an “Umke,” (a word with private associates no doubt) who was one of four “Umkes” abroad in the world. When the four finally got together they would rule the world. A new dynasty for mankind would ensue.

During the many years I watched this man I do not think he made many converts. People usually walked away muttering or smiling. Sometimes students came to tease, whereupon the “Umke” man would become furious and even more incoherent and would march to another corner. Perhaps it just appealed to Columbia students to have a chance to bait a messiah. But more meaningfully, I think they were testing. And they found what they wanted. A few inches below the surface of this would-be-world-transforming messiah was a snarl of personal problems: inadequacy, temper, irascibility. The Umke-man’s religion was a personal one and had no room in it for anyone else (except maybe those three other Umkes).”

-“The Shaman’s Doorway” by Stephen Larsen (Station Hill Press, 1988), pages 47-48

Larsen’s use of the story was pointing towards the issue of being TRANSPERSONAL. Does the message have value that bridges to others… especially to universal truths that relate to the great questions of our existence. In the example that Larsen gives, the “Umke” had a thin veneer of having a message for all mankind, but in fact did not. Rather, he just wanted to be heard.

Being heard is not enough. It needs to be TRANSPERSONAL. But that is not enough either. Larsen’s point here was that once the Umke was put to the test, he failed the test by yielding to his own weaknesses. Good point. But let’s suppose this did not happen. Suppose, when put to the test, the Umke responded with appropriate concern and thoughtfulness, personal vulnerability, and differentiation. Is that enough?

Well, of course not. One can be fully comfortable in one’s own skin, and yet still be wrong. Truth matters. Certainty of truth, however, is beyond our reach. A message may “make sense” to us, but it is hard to go beyond that point. The scientific process doesn’t really work for the most important questions (sometimes called the “existential questions” of life like “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” What is my purpose in life?” “Is this all there is?” “What matters most?” and so forth).

Therefore, in the search for truth, we in practice place things through the filter of CULTURE RESONANCE.

“Cultural Resonance is achieved when your audience uses what you’ve created to talk to each other about something meaningful that they’ve been observing in their culture.”

-Mike Arauz. “Difference Between Relevance and Resonance.” Internet
Address: http://www.mikearauz.com/2009/02/difference-between-relevanceand.
html.

I talk more about this thing of cultural resonance in my book Theo-storying, Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.

The main idea is that cultural relevance is simply to have things to say that include cultural ideas that people are well aware of within the culture. The Umke apparently was culturally relevant. The idea of a messiah and of a new age (NWO) certainly peeked the interest of the students at Columbia. They liked novelty and the man was indeed novel. They apparently wanted to hear his message and see where that message goes.

But relevance is not enough. In the end, the message was incoherent. That is, it did not make sense to the hearers. He got their curiosity but did not get their hearts.

We all have messages that we want to share. We want to have an influence on some level. Most messages are pretty incoherent to those who do not already believe them… and that makes sharing messages harder. That is part of the reason that Evangelists (religious or otherwise) tend to share their message with those already within a similar worldview. So a Christian Evangelist will almost invariably reach out to cultural Christians or to Christians from a different, but somewhat similar, sect. It is a short-cut. The recipients of the message already are believed to have a similar culture so that it would already be culturally resonant. And if the hearer already thinks it is culturally resonant, then one may not have to prove it is transpersonal. Most people outside of one’s own social echo chamber do NOT share enough commonality to ignore these concerns.

I will “cut to the chase here. If your message is really so important and so valuable, take the time to understand its relevance to all (Transpersonally Valuable), and put it in a format that is comprehensible and resonant to the target audience (Culturally Resonant).

The 4th Umke did not do this. Was that good or bad? We will never know.

Speculating on the “Mark of the Beast”

Okay, so when I was young, like in the 1970s and 1980s, I was told in books (Hal Lindsey’s books come to mind, but there were others) and occasionally in some church groups that the “Mark of the Beast” on the forehead and hand (Rev. 13:16-17;

close up photo of hand with tattoo
Photo by Mehndi Training Center on Pexels.com

14:9-10; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4) was some sort of tattoo. I believe that the spin on it was that it would be a bar code. (Today, they might have pushed for more like a QR code.) Such a code would essentially be like government regulated credit card I suppose.

But there were problems. Human nature is likely to balk at having a barcode on one’s forehead, and probably even the hand. It is too reminiscent of slavery. (We will get back to that idea later.) So later, there was a bit of a shift among some Christians to suggest the mark would be an ultraviolet (“black light”) tattoo. These utilize dyes that are nearly invisible when exposed to visible light, but glow quite visibly under UV lighting. They would act like the visible light tattoo as described before but is less likely to be rejected societally due to human vanity. Negatively, we are starting to play more fast and loose with the idea of a mark. Is a mark that is only visible under special lighting still a mark? Maybe, but then, would a tooth filling be described as a mark then since it is visible with an fluoroscope or x-ray photography?

More recently, special new ideas for the mark have been brought up including nano-devices. RFIDs have gained a certain fascination in eschatological circles. However, we are moving still further afield from “the mark,” as well as its placement, since it is quite unlikely to end up on forehead and hand.

These ideas spring from a rather literalist interpretation of Revelation. Yet, these literalists are tending to become less and less literal in the interpretation. I thought, therefore, that I would continue the trend to be less literal.

The Revelation is an apocalyptic work written to the early church. I won’t get into theories of authorship and exact date of writing. I am not competent to evaluate these. However, it is clearly written to several relatively early and highly persecuted churches in present-day Turkey. The work appears to have two main purposes– to give warning to the churches to remain faithful to God, as well as comfort that God is ultimately in control and will prove faithful to His own.

Although some see elements in the work to suggest a late-date writing, one reason to believe that it is fairly early is that the writing uses an awful lot of imagely that would be familiar and comfortable to Jews. This could suggest that the seven churches who were the primary recipients were still predominantly of Jewish background.

When we read Scripture, we need to remember that it was written FOR US, but not, strictly speaking, TO US. John wrote his revelations for our benefit, but to the seven churches in Asia Minor.  Thus, we should be cautious of an interpretation that makes an awful lot of sense now, but would be completely mystifying then. I am not saying it is impossible that John gave a message that only we 2000 years later could understand (I believe in the possibility of predictive revelation) but we should first look elsewhere. If the primary recipients would interpret it as (A) we should first consider (A) before going to (B).

Assuming a largely Jewish or Jewish-influenced primary recipient, I would have to think that the mark on the forehead and hand would make them think of the Shema. This passage of Jewish identity. Speaking of God’s message through Moses to the people of Israel,

“Bind them as a sign on your hand and as a symbol on your forehead.”   -Deut. 6:8

Perhaps even more clearly, the same message is shared again,

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your hearts.”   -Deut 11:18

Both passages enforce an interpretation that the Word of God is to impact ones thoughts and actions. Therefore one should hear the message of God, meditate on the message of God and act according to the message of God.

These are not the only places where such language is used. The Passover Feast, one of most important religious celebrations in the Jewish calendar was instituted in Exodus 13. In that passage, the importance of the feast is laid out:

Let it serve as a sign for you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.  –Ex. 13:9a

Later in the same chapter a similar wording is again used for keeping of the Passover:

“So let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead, for the Lord brought us out of Egypt by the strength of His hand.”  –Ex. 13:16

In these passages, the language of signs or symbols on forehead and had suggest learning, remembering, and obeying.

Another interesting passage is Ezekiel 9:4, in talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, where

“…the Lord said to him, ‘Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”    -Ezek. 9:4b

The suggestion here is that those who are faithful to God will receive a “mark” on their foreheads by God and will be spared in the massacre. John utilizes that same imagery in Revelation 7:3 and 9:4 where the mark is described as a “seal of God” on their foreheads.

Most people I know would not accept the idea that the saved have (or will have) a physical seal placed on their foreheads. I agree and think it is meant to be more… symbolic. The mark suggests an identification for protection. In less comfortable language, it establishes the faithful as the “property of God.”

Bringing these images from Scripture to the “mark of the Beast” it seems likely that the mark is not a physical or visible mark, and the same is true of the mark or seal of God on the faithful.

The mark of the beast would then suggest belief in the message of the beast, and obedience to the beast. It may also suggest enslavement to the beast. Certainly, such marks can be read as branding for the purpose of property, and this is reinforced with the idea that only those with such a mark are able to buy and sell.

But why does this matter? Stuff matters when beliefs turn to action.

Right now we live in a time where people are rejecting vaccinations because they believe they will herald the “new world order” and will be implanted with nano-chips that will mean that they are under the control of the Antichrist. Strangely, this is a highly imaginative and non-literal interpretation from people who are alleged proponents of literal interpretation of prophecy. And, if they are wrong, they are risking the health of themselves, their children, and their neighbors. It seems to me this interpretation is not only HIGHLY dubious, but also highly destructive.

The far more likely interpretation is that one is to trust in God’s word, be faithful to God, and be obedient to God even when we live in a world of power(s) at war with God.

We really need to be cautious of interpretations of Scripture that are based on a shaky foundation. I actually have a very personal reason for this, I have heard so many discussions about what 666 (6 three score and 6) means. Some are so far from good Biblical scholarship that they are nothing more than “sanctified” numerology. That concerns me greatly, in part, because of my name. Count it out if you want. God bless.

ROBERT    HAROLD    MUNSON

PS. I know this is not my typical stuff on missions, but I do like to point out that theology has consequences. Missions has to be grounded in good theology, and is (unsurprisingly) damaged by bad theology.

 

 

 

Guessing Rather Than Talking

Today I got a call asking my opinion about a missionary using the term “Isa al Masih.”  The official concern relayed to me was that the missionary was using the Arabic term for Jesus Christ. The issue was not that the term is Arabic, but rather that Isa al Masih is a term that ties to a Quranic depiction of Jesus rather than a Biblical depiction. From that understanding, although the Quranic and Biblical terms point to the same character, perhaps it is wrong to say that the terms are equivalent.

Of course this is nothing new. Are Yahweh, God, and Allah the same or not? All answers are inadequate. In a sense the answer is Yes. All three point to an Abrahamic understanding of the God of Heaven and Earth. In a sense the answer is No. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic understandings of God do differ considerably. If the descriptions are different, how can one say they are the same?

For me, the best answers are “No but” and “Yes but.” A Christian might say, “No, but we are seeking to worship the same God,” or perhaps “Yes, but we don’t all necessarily know the God we worship.” The latter is suggested in Jesus’s  response to the woman at the well in John chapter 4.

I would argue that “Yes But” or “No But” also works for Jesus. Both Isa al Masih and Jesus Christ are terms that seek to reference Yeshua of Nazareth. But the terms have wildly different interpretations of who he truly is.  One can say No they are too different… but both terms seek to discover the Jesus who is.

But… do two people mean EXACTLY the same thing, ever? No. We are always translating our thoughts, inadequately, whether we are talking to another of a different language or worldview… or same.

So if one is talking about Jesus the Messiah to one with an Islamic worldview… the closest term is “Isa al Masih.” The term is inadequate but is still adequate and necessary as a starting point for dialogue.

On this first point then, I believe the missionary used a perfectly fine term.  Yet I wonder if this wasn’t the key issue. The pastor(s) concerned may not have an issue with the term itself.

The chief concern may be motivation… at least as it is guessed by others. A religion is not only a body of beliefs, but a social construct. The language we use and the actions we do (and do not do) reinforce these social bonds.

Conflicts are rarely about language we use or actions we do. Conflicts tend to spring from what they guess motivates differences, not the differences themselves.

One sees this in many situations— religious or otherwise. I have known Christians who came from non-Christian settings. For example, I have known Christians from a Muslim background. They did not eat pork and they would get some level of grief from Christians. Why? It is not because Christians must eat pork. Christians have freedom. But there is often pressure to conform to “Christian culture.” Note… I live in the Philippines where eating pork is deeply ingrained in the culture.

Some Christians, upon discovering that a fellow Christian doesn’t eat pork start asking to themselves, “If ______ is one of us, why does ______ not act like us.” I heard some joke that one such Muslim background believer must be a “secret Muslim.” And maybe they were not joking. I have had people question who I ‘really’ am because I worship differently or vote differently. We know that only God can see the heart… but we tend to think that we can as well sometimes.

Perhaps some heard the missionary talk about Isa al Masih and instead of thinking “Oh the missionary contextualizes Christ to her place of ministry” they think “Maybe the missionary is getting confused in his beliefs— maybe he is not one of us.”

The answer is simple… ask. If language exists in Yes But and No But, rather than Yes or No, and we cannot read minds and hearts, we need feedback. We need dialogue.

Of course I am guessing myself. The one I talked to just had questions only. I cannot read the hearts and minds of the people involved. I have to remember to dialogue… to seek feedback.

Dialogue in Diversity

Social Media and Toxic (Non-)Dialogue

A few weeks ago I decided to leave Facebook… mostly. I still have a few activities that require me to pop in there for at least brief moments. However, I am pretty sure that my time there will continue to decline and not return to its past.

It started in a minor way. A friend of mine on FB had shared a rather silly little cut-and-paste that humorously sought a “divorce” of “real” Americans from various people in news and entertainment (mostly) who tended to trigger political conservatives. It was mildly humorous, but overall I found it a bit annoying. I have become increasingly concerned with tribalism in US religion and politics where there is a tendency to demonize people who hold other views rather than see value in diverse perspectives.

I would have let it go but most of the comments were unabashedly positive not merely to the questionable entertainment value of the post, but the actual idea espoused underlying the humor.

There were a few comments that were less positive, and so I decided to respond in a way that was not at all supportive of the post. I stated that I disagreed with pretty much every sentence in the post (probably an exaggeration), and felt that diverse views were a healthy part of society.

One guy (I will call him “Jay”) seemed really bothered by this response and suggested that I should not talk. I gave some vague response to this. I don’t even remember what I wrote now. He responded, that I should keep my opinions to my self, and then instead of addressing it to me, “Bob,” he addressed it to “Philippines.”

Okay, I felt like I got it. Jay felt that because I lived in the Philippines I really should not share my opinions on US politics. Strangely, I actually get that. I have Filipino friends over here that will, occasionally, express opinions about American politics that in my mind are so out of touch with what is actually going on— often reading or hearing the worst of US op-eds. Several times, I had felt tempted to tell my Filipino friends to stay out of what they don’t really understand. Thankfully, I refrained from it because I really do believe that we learn from each other. But I get the temptation to ignore people who don’t have a direct investment in a situation.

I responded to Jay that I am a US citizen and Virginia resident and serve as a missionary in the Philippines. Jay responded something about me being some liberal socialist something or other who would cause “Virginia Regulars to be rolling over in their graves.” Politically, I am rather eclectic (somewhere in the Conservative-Moderate-Libertarian range of things_. I don’t think my views would fit into the liberal or socialist side of things, but it is true that I have never tried to limit my views to any oneside of any political spectrum.

I got especially annoyed about the Virginia Regulars and their cemetery tumblings. Virginia Regulars were Confederate military. I am not an expert on the political beliefs of CSA military, but I generally thought that would be considered a good thing today to hold views that would decidedly out of synch with the Confederacy.

I wrote some smartass response somewhat clarifying my political stance and insulting Jay for jumping to yet another assumption. (It seems to be his thing.) But after about five minutes I went back on and deleted that post.

That is when I figured out a few things. These things I already knew but I got reminded.

  1. It was a bit foolish of me to make a vague sweeping response to the initial post. I was raised in a church that was part of the Fundamentalist and Separatist movements in the US. That church had (and has) many good qualities. Many people get bothered by the term “Fundamentalist” and picture all sorts of horrible things. However, for me, the FAR bigger concern is actually “Separatism.” It is a tribalizing philosophy and squelches dialogue. It is missiologically suspect and Biblically weak. I would even suggest that Separatism as a secular movement within American society is destructive to democracy. However, given a vague blanket statement actually triggers a separatist response. And of course it would. I someone responds to this post with the statement— “I disagree with pretty much every statement in this post” —- I would not take the writer seriously. It doesn’t feed dialogue, it squelches it.
  2. FB doesn’t really support healthy dialogue. It is not much better than Twitter to discuss important issues. Important issues can’t be handled with one or two or three sentences— or with a GIF or a like or a frowny face. It promotes a stereotyping of views. Also, short bursts of text done in the moment often get misunderstood and feelings get hurt and eventually people move into little echo chambers of mutual admiration societies each trying to one-up each other in greater extremes of view and attacks on others who don’t share those views.
  3. It sucks to not be understood. I remember taking our young child to the emergency room because of a bout of asthma. The nurse essentially accuses us of smoking around our child. It got us mad, especially my wife who was a nurse, because we don’t smoke, had not smoked, have no people in our house who smoke, and have never even had visitors come into our home and smoke. It is annoying to have someone come to a conclusion based on very limited information and act like they figured you out. But it is tempting to do that. Consider Jay for a minute. It is quite tempting for me to make guesses about him. He seemed to be annoyed that I was an Asian sharing opinions about America. When he found out that I am actually a (white) US citizen, he suggested that my Confederate ancestors (of whom I have none) would be horrified by my politics. It is pretty easy for me to GUESS that he is a raging racist MAWA (“make America white again”). But that would only be a guess. If I don’t like having Jay guess (extremely poorly) about my views, I should avoid doing that with him and others.

So I have decided to step away from FB. Not merely because of this rather mundane little conversation but because of years of these silly little problems.

But I do have to recognize the irony. I want healthy dialogue between different groups. I think Separatism is flawed. Yet I am separating myself off by stepping away from Facebook. I am still trying to work this out. I do believe that dialogue is valuable, but some formats don’t promote healthy dialogue. I don’t see FB as a place that promotes healthy dialogue… generally at least.

Not all formats support growth through dialogue. I recently read an article in a Jewish publication that questioned having interviews of Anti-Semites published in their Jewish papers. The reason for publishing these was to help Jews understand the perspective of those with very different views. However, I would agree with those who have expressed concern. While dialogue is a good thing, giving a soapbox for Anti-Semitic “hate speech” may not be a very effective way to promote mutual trust and growth.

Still trying to figure this out. Maybe we just have to accept the limitations of social media. In the end, most all of us really want to be understood— understood in our beliefs and values, and understood in our fears and hopes. It may be too much to expect to be understood on an media platform— at least until we learn to TRY to understand others in a similar way. But I think there is hope.

Back in the 1960s, the Evangelicals separated missiologically from the World Council of Churches. Each started meeting as separate entities. Both groups embraced some views that were pretty messed up, in my opinion. The Conciliar missions tended to reject the uniqueness of the message of Christ and moved from a ministry of evangelism to a ministry of presence. The Evangelicals embraced evangelism but did so by rejecting much of Jesus’s social ministry. Both sides were deeply flawed. Thankfully, there were a few (John Stott being perhaps the most well known of these) who maintained involvement and dialogue in both groups. By the 1970s the worst excesses of these groups were eroded. Both groups accepted that evangelism and social ministry are part of Christ’s call to the church. I can’t help but think that those who kept dialogue going had a role in this.

But if FB and Twitter and Reddit and other social media platforms existed back then would dialogue have improved? Not convinced. I am still trying to figure it out.

Looking For Opportunities to Change My Mind

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall
Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Vignette #1.  Today, I was looking at Facebook again. There were a lot of notes talking about how the WHO (World Health Organization) has changed their view yet again about some aspect of COVID-19 response. Tied to this is the implication that WHO is untrustworthy, and because it is untrustworthy… well, it should be defunded perhaps, or treated like an enemy, or some such thing. Hold that thought for a minute.

#2.  Each election cycle a person will run for political office. Many will, and often one such person will express a view on a hot topic. Soon after people will point out that years ago the person held very different views. From this people suggest that the politician is a liar— telling people what he or she thinks the people want to hear just to get elected.  Hold that thought as well.

#3.  I am listening to a podcast (Tripp Fuller with Jeffrey Pugh) on Bonnhoeffer. Pugh noted that Bonhoeffer’s theological and political views changed over the years as a theologian. It was noted, that many try to see a consistent viewpoint or will try to see Bonnhoeffer’s views through the colored glasses of a specific religious or political perspective. The fluidity of his views are frozen in a sort of single-perspective Bonnhoeffer orthodoxy.

#4.  More generally, I was raised up with the culturally supported perspective that women “always keep changing their minds.” I could be wrong, but I felt that the subtext of this cultural perspective is that changing minds speaks poorly to the character of women, especially as it comes to leadership.

If one just takes these four above situations, one sees four different responses to changing of one’s mind.

  • #1 Changing mind is a sign of incompetence.
  • #2.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Rather “pretending” to change mind is a sign of lack of integrity— an evidence of moral failure.
  • #3.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Understanding, at least to some extent, the views of someone at one point in time reveals someone and guides how the person can be understood at all points in time.
  • #4.  Changing mind does happen and is a sign of lack of character.

We see these show up in odd ways. Leaders are often judged poorly for being indecisive and praised for being decisive, regardless of whether the decisive move is correct and whether or not there was adequate information to make an informed decision in the first place. This is a bit of a mix of #1 and #4.  Today, a friend of mine showed (pulling in some American politics for a moment… sorry) that the first 23 blacks (African-Americans) to enter US Congress were Republicans. This was meant to show that Republicans are the more “black-friendly” or at least  the less “black-unfriendly.” Of course that is a case of #3.  If one party was good at one time, it must still be good. If one party is good today, it must have always been good.  It is the belief that continuity of structure suggests continuity of vision and purpose.

However, not only is such logic flawed, but it also hides the truth.  For example, the WHO (and the CDC) really SHOULD be changing their minds regularly. They are facing a problem that is new. As such, there is little rock solid information they can use for guidance. As such, they are somewhat groping in the dark. Despite being in the dark, governments and news media keep coming to them to get definitive answers. So they try to give good answers, but must keep changing as data flows in. This is normal and healthy.

Politicians should change their minds. People grow and times change. Admittedly, it would be good if a politician can explain what led him to changing his mind. This is not because it is wrong to change one’s mind. Rather, changing mind can evidence being a political hack who sways whichever way the breeze blows— or it can evidence a thoughtful person who analyzes, learns and grows. It would be helpful to know which is the case.

Bonnheffer kept changing in his politics and theology. That is good and healthy. A good theologian is a changing theologian. Millard Erickson in his book on Systematic theology descrbes several characteristics of good theology. Three of them (putting them in my own words) are that good theology is (a) Contemporary, addressing the questions and concerns of the present context, (b) Practical, provides wisdom as to how to think and act in ministry, the church, and broader society, and (c) Addresses knowledge from outside of theology. Since knowledge changes, context changes, and circumstances change, theology can and should change, and so theologians should change.

According to one study I saw (sadly, cannot remember the source, so you can research it yourself to be sure I am not wrong, or confused) found that men change their minds as much, or more, than women. It is just that they tend not to vocalize the vacillations of thinking as much. One could then argue that women should not be blamed for changing their minds, but rather men should be blamed for poor communication. OR… why blame at all. Affirm communicating uncertainty AND affirm quiet reflection. But most of all, affirm that we are all learning and growing.

So… Keep learning, keep reflecting, keep questioning. Embrace new ideas as a potential friend rather than a dread enemy.