I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Does God set his people free?

3 Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “Give these instructions to the family of Jacob; announce it to the descendants of Israel: 4 ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.”
Exodus 19 (New Living Transl.)

18 When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw the flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain, they stood at a distance, trembling with fear. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!” 20 “Don’t be afraid,” Moses answered them, “for God has come in this way to test you, and so that your fear of him will keep you from sinning!” 21 As the people stood in the distance, Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.
Exodus 20 (NLT)

The children of Israel were set free from captivity and set free to law...or, perhaps more specifically, the nation was set free to enter into a covenant with God: love God by keeping his laws, and in return God will bless the nation and it will prosper.

1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6 (NLT)

In our practical, day-to-day dealings, freedom is very very often a directed freedom. In fact, that seems to be the primary sense in which we typically use the word. Relationships of all levels usually have spoken/unspoken boundaries and limitations: don't "cheat" on your spouse, act with courtesy and consideration, take heed of his/her personal feelings, respect his/her preferences for this or that, etc. There is a give-and-take dynamic; it's a lot like a business transaction with its own economy. And we have myriad ways in which we construct these relational covenants.

The idea, I think, in constructing these covenants is that boundaries and laws allow us to function in closer proximity to one another. This is certainly the sense of God's covenant with the children of Israel: a bond of mutual benefit. In other word, the law gives life, joy, and prosperity:

Joyful are people of integrity,
who follow the instructions of the Lord.
Joyful are those who obey his laws
and search for him with all their hearts.
They do not compromise with evil,
and they walk only in his paths.
You have charged us
to keep your commandments carefully.
Oh, that my actions would consistently
reflect your decrees!
Then I will not be ashamed
when I compare my life with your commands.
As I learn your righteous regulations,
I will thank you by living as I should!
I will obey your decrees.
Please don’t give up on me!
Psalm 119 (NLT)

Okay, fair enough. For some, that should more or less be the end of the matter....however, the whole death and resurrection of Jesus Christ thing seems to screw it up a bit.

In 2 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul makes a comment, almost in passing, about being a minister of a new covenant: a covenant not of "the letter" (grammatos) but of the Spirit, for the letter "kills" (apoktennei) but the Spirit gives life.

The Spirit is a new way. In Galatians 5, Paul fires from point blank range: if you live by the Spirit you are no longer under law.

In Romans 7, Paul suggests to his readers that they died to the law "through the body of Christ." By dying to a life lived by the way of the law, a new way is made: living by the Spirit. (v. 6)

Also in Romans 7, Paul claims that the law is "holy" and "good." And then here is the kicker: I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

Did God screw up in the original law-giving, law-abiding covenant?

It's an interesting question, but suggesting that God didn't quite get it right may be an oversimplification. After all, law reflects the order of things, the structure of the way most of us usually order our lives. Pragmatically speaking, law can work, law does work.

When I talk to people--usually of the religious variety--about living without moral codes, principles, or standards, their first reaction is that such an approach to life would mean "just doing whatever."....such is an oversimplification. There is a third way, a "new way" of the Spirit. It's just that such a way is undefinable, by definition.

The question of this post is: Does God set his people free?

For most Christians--and religiously-minded people--it is still a matter of being set free from something and to something. In many cases, it is a matter of being set free to live up to an even higher standard than anyone else. (This is often the way people interpret the Sermon on the Mount.)

I prefer freedom of the more radical stripe: drop the laws, principles, and regulations entirely--go with the Spirit all the way. Purge the mind and soul of a way of life that evaluates all of our actions as good or bad.

There seems to be another dimension of life that one can only reach by transcending the life of law and principles. But it only seems possible to ascend to this dimension by letting go of our law-oriented inclinations, our instinct to evaluate our actions based on whether they are "good," "bad," or "neutral."

Does God set his people free?

I think that the answer to the question depends on what type of freedom we yearn for.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Not a Christian Church

So, a few months back, I scribbled down some ideas for the ragtag small group to which I belong....I was wondering what I might come up with if I jotted down some of the values that I think are important for our group. My original thought was to discuss it with our group and see if they wanted some points around which to rally---something to define us.

I scrapped the idea shortly after I jotted down my thoughts, not wanting to seem like we had any kind of creed or dogma. However, I scanned my handwritten thoughts (only two short pages) and saved it as a .pdf document, if you would like to take a peak. (Please pardon the poor handwriting!)

The three values I find important are:
Changing the world
Providing an environment of radical freedom

I call the whole thing "Not a Christian Church."


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Merging and Submerging

The only Christian died on a cross
- Nietzsche

Has the "Emerging Church" died? Such was the topic of a recent (and rather provocative) article on the Christianity Today website. This rather short and simple article coincides with a good deal of what I have been thinking through over the last year or so....ever since I walked away from institutional/organized religion.

The gist of the article R.I.P Emerging Church:

“The emerging church will disappear.” That is what my informant told me as we shared drinks at our clandestine watering hole. I felt like Luca Brasi being handed a dead fish wrapped in newspaper. The hit had been ordered…the emerging church’s fate had been sealed. In my informant’s mind, the death of the emerging church was a settled matter. I double-checked my surroundings for listening ears before whispering, “How can you be so sure?” The informant (who worked for a publisher) leaned forward and said their marketing plans included dropping the “Emerging Church” brand within two years.

That was two years ago.

Now comes word from recognized leaders and voices within the emerging church movement that the term has become so polluted that it is being dropped.

(Cf. McKnight article)

If you want my take on the issue, I favor a merging and submerging church: that those with a faith centered on Jesus would merge with culture and submerge beneath the turbulent waters of dogma, institution, and commercialized, market-driven religiosity.

My struggle is that I see all of Christianity as a fad, commercialized, consumer- and market-driven. To say "I am a Christian" is not to say that one identifies with Christ, but that one identifies with some form of a hyper-commercialized movement.

This explains, in part, the fact that the church has such a difficult time retaining those who are passionate about changing the world, have a heart for joining believers in open/authentic community, and have intelligent minds that desire to challenge status quo thinking. These are three key types of people that seem to be lacking in most church institutions. Most institutions tend to prefer organizing around static beliefs/practices rather than letting dynamic people loose to affect genuine change.

I can't help but sense an urgent need to purge and purify; a need to go underground; a need for silence, reflection, and growth.

In my opinion, the American church is neither hot nor cold. It is bland and boring. A few months back my boss told me that the water heater had not been working for quite sometime....but no one had noticed. Why? Because the water heater doesn't do a good job heating water, and so we don't ever expect the water to be hot. Such is the state of Christians.

Thought: Once the water is no longer hot, there is little difference between water that is merely warm and water that is cool.

When Nietzsche suggested that God is dead, wasn't he really just suggesting that God is not needed? If God doesn't actually exist, would that make a difference for the Christian religion? If we found out that there was never really a water heater to begin with, would the water temperature change?

Is it in the best interest of Jesus to let Christianity die? To put the movement out of its misery? I tend to think that the answer is, “yes.”

What would faith look like if it were just a gathering of people? Sharing life together? A non-Movement movement?

For most Christian leaders, a non-Movement movement would be too ambiguous…..the author of the above emergent church article says as much at the end of the article when he snidely remarks, “As the emerging church rides off into the sunset, where does that leave things? Well, news has been leaking about a new network being formed by Dan Kimball, Erwin McManus, and Scot McKnight among others…..They appear to have learned from the emerging church’s mistake—define purpose and doctrine early so your identity doesn’t get hijacked.”

But is it even possible to think faith without religion? To think spirituality without an Institution to regulate it? To think about Christ w/o Christianity?

Where is “faith” going these days?

The so-called "Reformers" did little to change the structure of institutional Christianity; they merely substituted different doctrines and introduced more legalistic standards to measure faith so as not to allow the church to devolve into the types of corruptions and abuses that Luther was so appalled to see when he journeyed to Rome as a naive young monk.

Interesting note: a friend recently informed me that Luther seriously considered the idea of organizing the new reformed churches as house churches. His one drawback was there were not enough people who could read, and hence there may be many house churches without someone to read the Bible…..hhhhmmmm…..but is such a drawback still an issue in 21st century America?

It is interesting that the emerging church appears to be going the way of the dinosaur. It was essentially a Movement that masqueraded as a non-movement. Hence, one kind of always felt as though a diagnosis of "multiple personalities disorder" was in order. I don’t mean to be too critical, but they did consciously decide to take this Movement public via mass distribution channels.

So......what now?

Eh hem….well, my thoughts….

I suggest: merge with culture and lose the holier-than-thou mentality; submerge from religion, dogma, and institution. Free people as individuals within community to pursue a pure and liberating faith.

Perhaps, this merging/submerging move would mean the death of commercialized Christianity and the use of "Christian" as an adjective: no more "Christian books," or "Christian music," or "Christian tee shirts," or "Christian worldviews," "Christian churches," or even "Christians.”

But to merge and submerge, as I am suggesting, would be the end of "Christianity" and "Church" as an institution and as an institutional powerhouse. Of course, such is still a radical suggestion....it means that the gathering of the faithful is organized around things like freedom, openness, love, acceptance, grace, and self-discovery......most Christians will prefer some sort of modified hybrid: an institution that merely shifts its values a bit. Add a bit more love, lose a bit of the moxy.....add some room to disagree on dogma, lose a bit of the need to control......sure, modifications can be made to ensure the survival of the mediocre institution, but in this era, I think such a suggestion is naive: the American church is overrun with the complacent, and a shift of values merely means that we will be complacent about a new set of "priorities." But perhaps this is an issue I am wrong about. Perhaps institutions with new values would, in fact, provide a new and fresh vision around which something powerful and dynamic could be formed….hhhhmmmm…..I’m doubtful, though……I think we need something more radical and extreme, something less man-made, synthetic, or artificial. Something that indicates a real connection to an external power surge. It seems difficult for me to see how things like love, freedom, grace, and power can be captured by religion. Religion and institution tend to kill these things…..but regardless, it seems quite clear that churches simply will not survive with any vibrancy unless something changes. And faith itself seems to me to be on the brink.

My suggestion of merging and submerging would seem to require the greater amount of courage, boldness, and failure: small groups striking it out on their own; trial and error, victories and failures, highs and lows. People of faith (and even non-faith) who are no longer connected by the obligation of a large-scale religious affiliation but by a more intangible and undefinable connectedness.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


"Mine, what does this word signify? Not what belongs to me, but what I
belong to, what contains my whole being, which is mine insofar as I belong
to it."
Soren Kierkegaard using the pseudonym Victor Eremita in Either/Or: A Fragment Of Life (1843)

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Some guy...uuuuhhhhhh.....I'll get back with ya.

"The stuff you own....ends up owning you."
Tyler, from the film Fight Club

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thinking about Gratitude

prayer at its very core is an intentional being-with god. just being with; not demanding anything at all. prayer is listening, and it is silence, and being still while allowing oneself to be held, and transformed.....

prayer and gratitude are both ways of being in the world. they are not activities we do; they aren't even attitudes we aquire. they are shifts in our very way of being. ((to use the big words.) to learn a posture of gratitude is to accept a shift in one's ontology--or maybe i should say a realignment with one's original ontology.)

in this way, gratitude is infinitely harder than we imagine because it requires so much more of us than noticing pleasant occurances and being thankful for them.....

- Tamie, Thinking about Gratitude

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in the blogosphere. You make my life better, so much gratitude.

I've been traveling (and preparing to travel) since the beginning of this week, so I've been out of the blog loop....I will catch up, though, but 'twill be hit and miss for the next two weeks. I'm taking some time to enjoy the south before returning to the dark and cold Indiana countryside. My first stop was in Memphis, en route to Houston, TX, where I will be spending a Thanksgiving. Then it is over to Temple, TX to see my brother, his wife, and their new addition, Camille. From there, I am swinging over to Flagstaff, AZ to see my good friend Tamie. Flagstaff will be the base camp, and will be doing some traveling around the southwest: Tucson, Mexico, and maybe see some of the Grand Canyon. When I come back in December, 'twill be time for tax season again.

Here are a few pics. of the family flag football game this morning.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Endless mimetic spiritual desire - Or, How to never become a person of faith

I have a few more posts on the church and Christianity that I would like to share, and hopefully discuss with others....I hope that my intense negativity is not viewed too threateningly. In other words, I often fear that my negative posts are construed as primarily my opportunity to vent personal anger/bitterness/angst. While I do not deny that my exit from institutionalized Christianity has created no small internal turmoil, if I felt that vengeance was my primary motivation, then I would shut up and post about something else; however, I do think that in the previous post and in the ones to come, there are some important theoretical, spiritual, and existential issues to discuss.

It is almost a given that the era of institutional Christianity is over. The important discussion point is to ask what is next. (For example, my next post will discuss the end of the "emergent church" and some possible implications.)

Previously, I discussed the issue of apathy: where does apathy come from? Perhaps it comes (in part) from excess--being saturated. Are we apathetic in the churches because we are saturated with "Jesus" and "Christian" stuff? My main point was to suggest that we have lost the "the knowledge of God" because of saturation with the knowledge of God. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about destroying things that set themselves up against the knowledge of God. My thought is that it is "knowledge of God," itself that is eroding our knowledge of God.

I was recently listening to an interview with Rene Girard. Girard is the father of theories of "mimetic desire." Simply put, he suggests that our desires are never (or in most cases) for the object itself, rather, we want what we want because others want it. Our desires for things are primarily based on wanting what others desire, such that we rarely pursue the thing itself--even if we decieve ourselves into thinking that such is the case. Fashion is an obvious example: we wear things that appeal to us because we see others desiring those clothes.

Remember some of the crazy outfits Brad Pitt wore in Fight Club??? They were ridiculous by fashion standards at the time, but as soon as the movie hit the big time, clothing sellers found a demand, and one label even produced a separate "Fight Club" clothing line.

Girard's theory is fascinating and also complex. (For more, there is a good Wikipedia article on Girard, and our friend John Doyle (aka, Ktismatics) also previously posted on Girard, with some interesting commentary by myself and others.)

Without delving into the complexities, however, I'm sure you can see the link to our contemporary American advertising and marketing matrix, which Girard himself mentions in the interview: we desire the stuff that others desire. So, advertising focuses not on selling us a "thing"--that's stupid--they sell us a desire to be like the people who use the product.

About halfway through the interview, Girard begins to discuss Coca-cola. They sell the soft drink, says Girard, by showing the kinds of people who drink Coke: beautiful people on beaches who can't wear very much clothing because they have such perfect figures.

But Girard goes further, and he makes an interesting point. He says there is a "sacramental" aspect to Coca-cola: we drink the product to participate in the transformation. Sound familiar? Lord's supper, Eucharist, partake of the body of Christ, baptism, come out of the water and into new life? The sacrament of participating in the product sold to us by advertisers ushers us into a transformation.

John's (Ktismatics') above-mentioned post quotes Girard on this topic, essentially: we desire the being of others. Why? For one thing, it is because our being isn't good enough. We need to latch onto something else. But, I think, it is more than that. There is also a slothful element, as well: we don't want to engage in the process of becoming, of establishing our own being and working it out as a life process.

Our mass-media corporate culture is always there to sell us more desires....there's always something more to want, because the cool kids are always wearing new clothes.

Let's take this into the realm of our American Christian life. The multi-billion dollar Christian corporate machines operate on the same basis as other advertisers: stir up mimetic desire. Don't you want to have a fuller Christian life, like these best-selling authors, who also attach handy workbooks and just released this new DVD? Don't you want to have the worship experiences of these contemporary Christian music artists? Don't you want the security of knowing the right Christian doctrine, like these "biblical" Christian teachers?

It's a business of creating continual desire; it's no different than any other corporation: there's always something new to desire. We can continually put off the faith-process of becoming by purchasing the latest Christian product.

How about the local church? Surely the scene is better here, is it not? I say no. I think the local church does the same thing: there's always a new sermon each Sunday, always a new musical worship experience, always a new "ministry" or "program." It's still mimetic desire. We live our spirituality through others. Once again, the process of personal becoming that is at the heart of faith is eternally delayed by our almost voyeuristic need to watch others perform their faith on stage. It's show biz.....Mimetic desire.

So, our churches become sacraments to be a part of the institution, part of the crowd--to participate in the spiritual desires of others. What church most certainly is not is a participation in the life of Christ. Endlessly running after the spiritual desires of others results in never becoming a person of faith.

My point here, is not to condemn Christian corporations or the church or to suggest that any corporate Christian purchase is immoral or wrong--that's too easy. The point is to develop a self-awareness of what it means to participate in a process of endless, mimetic desire and to discuss the consequences. Hence, I think it is obvious that this is not a uniquely "Christian" discussion. We are discussing the 21st century "self" in an age where media uses mimetic desire to shape and form the self.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Apathy and the knowledge of God

The following is from the script of the film Donnie Darko:

Ms. Pomeroy sits across from Principal Cole.

I'm sorry, Karen, this is a
specialised school. We don't think
the methods you've undertaken here
are appropriate.

(trying to contain
her anger)
With all due respect, sir, what
specifically about my methods do you
find inappropriate?

Principal Cole stares at her for a moment.

I don't have to get myself into a
debate about this, Karen, I believe
I have made myself clear.

You call this... clarity? I don't
think you have a clue what it's really
like to communicate with these kids.
You don't think that they can smell
your bullshit from a mile away? Every
day that goes by... that we fail
to... inspire them... is another
moment that we all lose. And we are
losing them to apathy, and this...
prescribed nonsense. They are slipping

I am sorry that you have failed. Now
if you'll excuse me, I have another
appointment. You can finish out the

(Script from IMSD)




What are the signs of American apathy? And the ramifications?

As I see it, there are three areas of apathy within the institutional church. The first is a preference for services and routine rather than community. By "community," I mean a kind of community that mirrors the early church in Acts, where believers are found sharing their lives together: spending long times in fellowship over meals and even selling their possessions and having their stuff in common--a clear violation of the truths of capitalism that we hold to be self-evident!

The second area of apathy is a general tendency to become so absorbed in the American lifestyle that there is no real vision for radically changing the world. Third, I would say there is a definite lack of freedom. That is, the church--like the greater culture--seems more interested in conforming and manipulating the self so that it meets its end goals and advances its values. In this context, creativity, originality, intellectual exploration, and dynamic vision are viewed with suspicion. (Cf. Tamie's recent post on the artist and priest.) In many contexts, not changing is viewed as a virtue.

But such apathy is not really unique to the church, is it? In many ways, apathy in the church is only a reflection of the apathy that is uniquely American. In fact, the three areas of apathy mentioned above (isolation/anti-community, lack of vision for world change, and conformity/manipulation of the un-free self) are manifested regularly in the culture at large.

What is the cause?

Well, that's a difficult question--a complex question, really, with no simple answer. However, might I suggest that one problem is that of saturation. Saturation? Yes, the idea that if a person has too much of a good thing, they tend to not appreciate it. That which is good becomes common and dull. Dullness leads to boredom and apathy.

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about demolishing "every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God." Might it be that we live in a world, particularly in the U.S. of A., where we are so saturated with the knowledge of God that God has become meaningless and dull?

I would suggest that one of the greatest spiritual tragedies of our time is that the Bible is history's #1 best seller. (See Wikipedia) The knowledge of God is everywhere in America. On Sunday mornings, sermons pollute the airwaves--preachers who take some of the most meaningful aspects of life and in the typical American sitcom style, they reduce these meaningful discussions down to a simple three point sermon with application points. We have multi-billion dollar industries dedicated to providing Christian music, literature, and multi-media. Multi-billion dollar industries! And we still think we need to get the message out????

I'm not saying that no good can come of all of this, I'm just saying that less is more. I am convinced that in 21st century America, the greatest obstacle to the knowledge of God is the knowledge of God itself. Knowledge of God is cheap and easy: go to church, listen to the radio, get a podcast, pop in a cd, turn on the television. And our Christian American leaders boldly continue "preaching the word," as if more information is going to make a difference in this over-saturated society. They seem to think that if only the world had the "right" message, then America would shake off its apathy. But they only add to the cacophony and noise.

Maybe it's time to for a fast. If we really value the knowledge of God, maybe it's time to protect it by hiding it.

Is mass media the new swine pit into which we cast our pearls? Is it a saturation that contributes to our apathetic faith?

And what is the connection between religious apathy and apathy in the American culture??? Has religion followed culture, or has the culture followed religion on this issue? I think it is quite probably that the church has taken the apathetic leadership role. That is, the apathy we find in Donnie Darko might be a result of the American culture following the church. I think this is particularly the case due to how closely church and culture were connected in the American life of the past.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Did God write the Bible?

Or, perhaps more to the point, Should we call God an "author" of the Scriptures?

Yes, that's a much better question.

Interestingly, enough, while many conservative Christians here in the U.S. of A. would adamantly affirm that God authored the Bible, the Bible itself doesn't really seem concerned to make the point. In fact, as far as I can tell, there is never a statement that identifies God as "author" of the Scriptures.

I remember a few years back in one of my seminary classes (at a very conservative seminary), we were in the midst of a class discussion. Someone referred to God as the "author" of Scripture. So, I casually asked the question, "Is God the author of Scripture." The class (including the Prof.) started laughing; they thought I was provided dry comedy relief, in the distinctive Erdman style. However, they quickly realized I was, in fact serious, and we continued with the discussion for only a short while longer. Most in the classroom quite obviously hadn't considered whether God should be considered an "author" of the Bible.

"But what about 2 Timothy 3:16, Jon!??! What about it??!! Huh! Huh!"

Yes, good friend. 2 Timothy states that all Scripture is theopneustos, meaning "God-breathed." So, what does that mean? Well, honestly, it isn't clear! This is the only instance the term theopneustos is used in the New Testament. It is obviously a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? Authorship? I don't know. I'm not convinced. That all Scripture contains a "breath" of God is one thing...to say that this means God had a hand in the writing process. I don't, friend. Should we stretch the term "breath" and look for an exhaustive definition? Or should we simply appreciate the ambiguity of a good metaphor?

Also, my good 2 Timothy 3:16 friend, bear in mind the context of the metaphor: the Bible has some good practical use. In other words, the idea of Scripture being breathed by God relates to its pragmatic value. I find the Scriptures far more useful when approaching them as a pluralistic perspective on life and faith.

What are the implications of dropping the idea that God is the "author" of the text. While I do not as of yet have anything resembling an exhaustive philosophy of the Bible to give you, there are a few points that seem rather clear to me.

First, let's say that the Bible is written by men. It is most naturally read as a conglomeration of diverse writings. "God-breathed," yes. "Written" by God....let's say "no."

Second, the Bible is highly contextual. It contains perspectives relevant to the issues that people faced in their day. So, for example, according to OT law, if a dude rapes a girl, his "punishment" is that he has to buy the girl and make her his wife. Well, for that day it was probably a good law, considering how badly women were treated. But by our standards today (according to our 21st century American context), this is a ridiculous law! The Bible deals most primarily (but certainly not exclusively) with issues closely related to the context of the day.

Third, the theology found in Scripture is highly pluralistic (even contradictory I would say, though some would disagree!). This third point kind of follows from the first two. One example of this seems to be the character of God. God might be unchanging according to one perspective in one book of the Scripture, but in another, he is shown to respond to what we do and even to change his mind.

Fourth, the Bible itself shows a movement and a progression. The most blatant example would obviously be the New Testament writers recontextualizing the Old Testament to better "fit" and to better understand the event of the coming of the Messiah. That is why some of the "proof texts" that you see in the NT don't seem to fit (at all!) the original context from whence they were plucked! The concern of the NT writers was to BOTH find continuity with the OT but to go beyond it and address the issues of their day and the new challenges and opportunities available to the faithful.

Fifth, in light of all of the above, I think that the point of reading and applying the Bible today is to recognize the need to continue to recontextualize the Scripture, to realize that the power of the written text is primarily to focus our attentions on the current day and to think critically about the unique issues and questions that we face. If there is a "constant" or an "absolute" in all of this, it would have to be the presence of the Spirit of God--the "living and active Word of God" as the book of Hebrews says.

To say that the text is "God-breathed" then, is not to say that it has all the answers to today's questions (evolution, abortion, homosexuality, women's rights and status, sexual ethics, pornography, etc.). The text is certainly a guide, and a very important one; but the primary connection is not to the text itself, but to the God of the text. Karl Barth said that the Bible is not the revelation of God but the record of the revelation of God. I kind of like that thought and approach. For Barth (and others), the Word of God becomes the Word of God as it is proclaimed in the contemporary context. The text, then, seems to become more dynamic.

What say you? What are the various implications if we drop the terminology of God being the "author" of the Scriptures?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Indiana today

So, I'm back in Indiana. I arrived back from Germany last night. I know you may think that I am a helpless case, but I realized when I got back how much I missed the American media--watching Sports Center, football (of the American variety), endless sitcoms, movies, and of course coverage of the current election.....and....speaking of the election....goodness gracious! Indiana is a player again! I'm so intrigued. Obama just finished voting in Illinois, and he is on his way to Indianapolis. That's right, my friends, Obama is making his final pitch on the final day in Indiana. He's coming to a state that is staunchly Red Republican, because the campaign thinks he can win it. Amazing. Really. There's a part of me that doesn't even believe that such a thing is possible; mostly it is hard to believe because I live in a very conservative area of Indiana.

They are currently speculating that if Indiana goes to Obama, then the election is over. Indiana finishes their voting first. Indiana always votes Republican; typically they are the first to light up Red. So, whatever happens here will help get an early and significant idea of how the race is going to shape up.

In other news, I had a great trip. It was tons of fun. I will post more pictures and do a bit more blogging as I go along. Right now there are some black squirrels scurrying about in my yard, and I've got to do some unpacking and work out. The work outs have been on hold, apart from some friendly push up competitions with our couchsurfing hosts in Vienna.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Climb Every Mountain

A report on the early stages of my Germany trip.


Note: I (Erdman) am referred to as MV.


Dirty, starved skeletons
- description by American soldier of the liberated prisoners at Dachau

I spent five hours at the Dachau concentration camp. Even though there were many many deaths, Dachau was a work camp designed to confine prisoners that the NAZIs viewed as enemies of the state. I was surprised by the diversity of the prisoners: thinkers and political activists, of course, but also entertainers, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, beggars, and those considered racially inferior. In other words, people groups from all spectrums of life were represented.

I don't feel it is possible to neatly summarize Dachau and provide any kind of perspective or interpretation. I was simply dumb struck and speechless. No one can understand Dachau except those who experienced it. For the rest of us--especially those of us who are nearly 70 years removed--there is only the possibility of feeling as though we are tripping around in the dark searching for a light switch.

The primary objective of the work camp was to de-humanize. The sign on the gate is cold and ironic: Arbeit mach frei "Work brings freedom." The daily routines included brutal torture (for example, hanging from poles, beatings, etc.), intimidation, malnurishment, degredation, and harsh work. Upon entrance into Dachau, the prisoners have their property taken away from them and they are told, "You are without rights, dishonorable, and defenseless. You're a pile of shit and that is how you are going to be treated."

The following photograph is significant in its dehumanizing representation: all of the prisoners are simply part of a herd, "pests" shown here as being beneath their superiors:

In the Dachau Museum, the layout is chronological. The beginning points is the NAZI's rise to power, the chronology of Dachau, and then the freeing of the prisoners by American forces.

It is difficult to move through the exhibits. I felt I was more and more overwhelmed by the brutality and horror. The point at which I felt the most potent impact was perhaps when I came to a small exhibit on the poetry of Dachau. As I understand it, the poets sometimes took risks in writing down poetry, but most often they kept their poetry in their minds. I read the following bz Mirco Camia, a prisoner of Dachau, who writes about his encounter with Nevio Vitelli's poem "Mein Shatten in Dachau." I wrote down the words, but I had to stop several times, overcome at several points.

"The value of this poem for me?...it contains everything: the agony of captivity and the elegy of freedom, the meaning of the greatest earthly love, maternal love...and something else that is banished from the normal thoughts of youth and from human suffering: forgiveness.

"It is not possible to endure subhuman conditions, to be nothing more than an 'object'...without being pursued by it an entire lifetime, even in your soul, or without destroying what you possessed before this experience--...the beauty of a vision of the universe and of mankind...Nevio made it possible for me to find mzself again in his unknown poem."

For me, Dachau is a land marker in my life. It is a reference point. I don't feel that I have the ability to understand it, but merely to allow it to inform and shape me at every stage of growth.

For all of the efforts at Dachau to de-grade the human being, for all of the energy spent de-humanizing, the words of the Karl Röder (prisoner 1933-44) are poignant:

"In the camp I made a meaningful discovery: No power exists in the world that is capable of destroying humans as spiritual beings."

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Girls Next Door

The Girls Next Door is a reality television show that takes viewers behind the gates of the Playboy Mansion and into the lives of Holly, Bridget, and Kendra, the three girlfriends of the iconic Hugh Hefner. The show is sexy and sensual, taking the audience into the bedrooms and behind the scenes of nude photo shoots (with all “unmentionable parts” blurred out, of course); and yet the show is not the typical flesh-hawking reality tv. Far from it, actually. The show is actually quite, funny, and adorable.

The appeal and focus of the show is on the lives of Holly, Bridget, and Kendra. “Hef”—the girls’s nickname for the gracefully aging Hugh Hefner—is often seen on the show. He interacts with the girls, conducts business, and generally lives a life of leisure; but mostly the show centers on the personality of the girls as they live their lives and pursue the various things that interest them.

In short, even though the show is sexy, its appeal is not sex. Most of the show is not about sex. Most of the show is about beauty and personality. The girls are interesting and adorable. Holly is ambitious and holistic, taking initiative to spearhead various projects and photoshoots. She also makes no secret of the fact that she has a maternal instinct and wants to have a baby with Hef. Bridget has a master’s degree in communications and a deal with the Travel channel for a new tv series. Kendra is a carefree tomboy who loves to play sports and party.

The girls live a charmed life. Accordingly, they talk about how “blessed” they feel to “live such a special life.”

What makes the show unique and worthy of discussion at Theos Project is that The Girls Next Door subjectifies the sexuality of porn stars. The girls are not objectified as sex objects. They are not merely flesh for the consumption of the lustful; rather, their sexuality is linked to their subjectivity—they are first people. Their career is sexual—one might call it their “calling”—but there is no sense that their sexuality degrades them or holds them back from exploring their full potential as people and as human subjects.

Briefly, I think The Girls Next Door illustrates three mergers. These mergers represent things that have been traditionally separated and dichotomized.

First, there is a merger of porn with pop culture. We now live in a porn culture. It is part of the electronic evolution of humanity: porn is now quick and easy and not "dirty." One need only log on to the internet to find a world of whatever entices desire. This merger of porn with pop culture is perhaps not as integrated as places like Hong Kong or Japan, but still a reality. I remember hearing in the last year about a Japanese baseball player who recently came to the States to play in the MLB. He casually began publicly describing to reporters his extensive pornography collection. For all intents and purposes, it appears that it is not uncommon for reporters and ballplayers in Japan to discuss pornography and even to exchange dvds with reporters! Pornography is no longer a back-ally activity with an exclusively negative connotation.

The second merger is porn with art. Regardless of how one feels about the moral ramifications of pornography, the fact is that porn is now artistic and may even be "beautiful."

Third, porn has been integrated with authentic personal expression. Not only is porn generally considered an authentic form of personal expression for those who view it, but porn is now also a form of self-expression and perhaps even a “calling” for the porn star. This is similar to the merger of porn with art, but in this case, the suggestion is that being a porn star is a vehicle to achieving occupational fulfillment. Porn is not just a badge of shame for girls who are looking to make money—it’s not just an economic exchange—there really seems to be something deeper and self-authenticating.

I see all of the above mergers and integrations when I watch The Girls Next Door. The show is porn in pop-culture, an artistic production, and the girls of the show live a charmed and fulfilling life.

Traditionally, both those on the right and the left have vehemently opposed pornography. On the right, the religiously conservative, concerned with the morality of sexuality. On the left, those concerned with the degradation and exploitation of women.

Noam Chomsky expresses his objection.

Chomsky brings a black-and-white perspective: pornography is degrading to women, therefore pornography should be eliminated. “Women are degraded as vulgar sex objects,” says Chomsky, “That’s not what human beings are.” Chomsky finds this to be even beyond discussion, kind of an axiomatic given.

I certainly find a lot in Chomsky that I resonate with: degrading women—or anyone—is something that is worth fighting. I would certainly agree with Chomsky and others who oppose porn if pornography is embedded in a social context where those who produce the porn have very little (if any) other options and therefore reluctantly resign themselves to degradation and humiliation in order to survive. Such a system is sick.

What makes the 21st century discussion a bit unclear, however, is that pornography has merged with pop culture, art, and personal self-authentication. The girls from The Girls Next Door don’t have to shoot porn. They could walk away at any time, and at some time they probably will.

So, if the conditions for exploitation has been eliminated, is there still an objection to porn?

An argument might be made that human beings, by nature, are degraded by participating in pornography. That is, porn is degrading, even if it may feel self-authenticating to be a porn star and even if the porn star is unaware of the fact that they are being degraded. Similarly, those who participate in watching pornography degrade themselves, regardless of any personal satisfaction they receive. Pornography cheapens sexuality. Human beings were called to something “higher,” and pornography holds us back from something “more noble.” Such an argument, I think, might be difficult to prove. I think it would have to come from some sort of inner sense. This does not make the argument less potent, but perhaps such an argument really isn't an argument but rather an internal sense that sexuality is cheapened if it is made available for public consumption.

At this point, we are entering the murky waters of speculating on morality and nature. Pascal said that custom is our nature. What is “human nature”? Something we inherit, something intrinsic? Or is “nature” more closely related to the societal and cultural matrices within which we are embedded? Perhaps one of the great intellectual and cultural wars of our day is over human nature. How do we define ourselves as sexual beings? Is it based on something in our nature? Or are we defined sexually based largely on the cultural and society norms/morality that we are taught?

In any event, I find that The Girls Next Door provoke an important discussion of sexuality. It reflects many of the unique realities of sexuality in the 21st century.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Coming Attractions

My time has been going in various, non-blogging directions. However, a new post is coming in the next day or two.

I will be doing a bit of exegesis on the popular cable tv show The Girls Next Door:

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Pay-as-you-go Church

My friend Nicole had a good idea that would resolve the division that exists among churches, encourage attendance, help the unity of Christians, encourage financial giving, facilitate worship service creativity, and help fend off boredom amongst Christians. Yes, an idea to speak to all of these issues, from my friend Nicole.

The idea, though profound, is quite simple: have people pay for the sermons.

Now, we are not suggesting something so crass or crude as to set a price tag on the sermon. Oh, heavens no! One should only give as they are led! All we are suggesting is that the offering plates are passed amongst the faithful after the service is over. The unstated understanding is that if the service was good, then the people can feel good about giving their hard earned American dollars to the cause. If the service was not good, then the clergy can give it another try next week.

We really need to utilize the forces of Adam Smith's invisible hand.

If Nicole's scenario existed, then Christians could feel free to visit other churches without having a "home church." When the services become a matter of routine, obligation, moralizing for the sake of moralizing, or in anyway dull and uninspiring, then the faithful can go to other churches where people have something interesting to say or do. In such a scenario, believers don't "belong" to a church--as if one church had all of the answers while all other believers are shadows of this perfection--rather, all believers belong together, and Sunday morning would become a matter of finding the gathering where the most energy seems to be present, where provocative challenges are presented, intellectual stimulation is evident, spiritual passion is alive, etc., etc.

The "church hop" already happens in America.....people go from church to church.....but Nicole's thought is that we should just let this idea reach its logical end. Right now people "join a church" (a horrible idea!) and then they have to completely break their ties with the old church (cancel their membership, etc.) before they can "join" the new church.

No more shame! Let each Sunday be a fresh start!

Go from church to church. Pass the plates at the end of the sermon, and then people can contribute to the ministry that has something going for it. Think of it like a cell phone plan: wouldn't it be great to use your phone and then at the end of the month just pay for the minutes you used???

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

Today we discuss The Grand Inquisitor, one of the most widely-discussed chapters of Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. We left two of the brothers, Ivan the Atheist and Alyosha the naive, aspiring young monk, in a dialog on evil: why is there suffering and terror? What has God to do with it all? If there is a reason for evil and a final "harmony" at the end of all things, is it really worth it? Ivan says no. He tells Alyosha that although he does not reject God, he rejects God's world. He "returns to the ticket":

"It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket."
"That is rebellion," Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
"Rebellion? I don't like hearing such a word from you," Ivan said with feeling. "One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.
"Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature...would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."
"No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov explores the turbulent lives of a dysfunctional family: a "wicked," "baboon" of a father and the three sons that he neglected. The main characters of the novel struggle to come to grips with their inner demons and the darkness they find within themselves and in world. To be a Karamazov is to have a thirst and a lust for life; it is to have a fantastic capacity for both good and evil.

At the end of the Rebellion chapter, Alyosha is at a loss. Ivan has presented his rejection of God's world. And who can blame him? Ivan doesn't find there to be any hope for forgiveness and reconciliation. The world is evil; the world is absurd. In the face of it all, it is best not to forgive. Who has the right to forgive? And so, Alyosha responds:

"You asked just now if there is in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive. But there is such a being, and he can forgive everything, forgive all and for all, because he himself gave his innocent blood for all and for everything. You've forgotten about him...."
"Ah, yes, the 'only sinless One' and his blood! No, I have not forgotten about him; on the contrary, I've been wondering all the while why you hadn't brought him up for so long, because in discussions your people usually trot him out first thing." (p. 246 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

Ivan then tells a story of the Grand Inquisitor. It is difficult on a first reading to see the connection between the prior chapter on Rebellion and this story of the Grand Inquisitor. After hearing the story, Alyosha himself is confused, "But...that's absurd!" he cried, blushing. "Your poem praises Jesus, it doesn't revile him...as you meant it to."

Why does Ivan launch into this narrative (or "poem" as he calls it)? We will return to this dilemma later.


The Grand Inquisitor: walking through the narrative

The story of the Grand Inquisitor is set in Spain during the Inquisition. Jesus has returned to earth.

"He appeared quietly, inconspicuously, but, strange to say, everyone recognized him. This could be one of the best passages in the poem, I mean, why it is exactly that they recognize him. People are drawn to him by an invincible force, they flock to him, surround him, follow him. He passes silently among them with a quiet smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love shines in his heart, rays of Light, Enlightenment, and Power stream from his eyes and, pouring over the people, shake their hearts with responding love." (p. 249)

People are drawn by his "invisible force," and eventually a little coffin with a little girl is brought to Jesus. Jesus raises the girl from the dead.

Enter the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor.

"He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and straight, with a gaunt face and sunken eyes, from which a glitter still shines like a fiery spark....And such is his power, so tamed, submissive, and tremblingly obedient to his will are the people, that the crowd immediately parts." (p. 249)

Jesus is arrested and the Grand Inquisitor comes to his cell. Jesus never says a word, but the Grand Inquisitor has something he needs to express, something to say.

The Grand Inquisitor has a complaint against freedom: humanity cannot handle the radical freedom that Jesus offered.

"You want to go into the world, and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which they in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend, which they dread and fear--for nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom." (p. 252)

For the Grand Inquisitor, this empty hand of freedom is not what humanity needs. The masses of humanity do not want freedom, they are "weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble." (p. 253) Jesus rejected the bread offered to him in the wilderness, and this may be fine for the strong, for those who can handle freedom, but it is not enough for the weak masses of humanity. They need something real. They need a miracle worker; they need bread.

"And if in the name of heavenly bread thousands and tens of thousands will follow you, what will become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who sill not be strong enough to forgo earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly." (p. 253)

The Grand Inquisitor weaves a grand theology based on the three temptations that Christ faced in the wilderness. The three temptations that Jesus rejects represent three powers: miracle, mystery, and authority. That which Jesus rejects are what the whole of humanity needs. Perhaps the few, the elite, can do without them, but the Grand Inquisitor's desire is to provide the great masses of human beings with happiness.

To be happy, human beings need their physical needs met. This is bread. But there is more. Humanity has a moral sense, a conscience.

"Give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience--oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience." (p. 254)

The mystery that the Grand Inquisitor gives to humanity is the appeasement of their conscience. Human beings cannot handle absolute freedom.

"There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either." (p. 254)

This is where freedom and law come into conflict, and for me it is one of the most intriguing portions of this chapter. The Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus,

"You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide." (p. 255)

For the Grand Inquisitor, law replaces freedom. It sets the boundaries within which people can do right or wrong. The freedom that the Grand Inquisitor attributes to Jesus is a freedom based on being "seduced and captivated" by Jesus with only his image as a guide.

The Grand Inquisitor charges Jesus with overestimating humanity:

"You overestimated mankind, for, of course, they are slaves, though they were created rebels....Respecting him less, you would have demanded less of him, and that would be closer to love, for his burden would be lighter. He is weak and mean." (p. 256)

The three powers, miracle, mystery, and authority, all work together: "There are three powers, the only powers on earth capable of conquering and holding captive forever the conscience of these feeble rebels, for their own happiness--these powers are miracle, mystery, and authority." (p. 255)

The third power, authority, is the unifying force: "A means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill--for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of men. Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal." (p. 257)

Miracle, mystery, and authority is the answer for the happiness of humanity. Jesus has his "chosen ones," the few and the proud. But what of the rest? "You are proud of your chosen ones, but you have only your chosen ones, while we will pacify all." (p. 258)

And then comes the intriguing twist: the Grand Inquisitor was once of the so-called "chosen ones."

"I am not afraid of you. Know that I, too, was in the wilderness, and I, too, ate locusts and roots; that I, too, blessed freedom, with which you have blessed mankind, and I, too, was preparing to enter the number of your chosen ones, the number of the strong and mighty, with a thirst 'that the number be complete.' But I awoke and did not want to serve madness. I returned and joined the host of those who have corrected your deed. I left the proud and returned to the humble, for the happiness of the humble."

So, we find the shocking revelation that it was for the love of the "weak" masses of humanity that the Grand Inquisitor rejected the freedom of the "chosen ones."

Ivan's story ends with the Grand Inquisitor declaring that the next morning Jesus will be burned as a heretic.

"Suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the whole answer. The old man shudders....'Go and do not come again...do not come at all...never, never!'" (p. 262)

Ivan and Alyosha continue to discuss Ivan's beliefs and his approach to God. Ivan believes that "everything is permitted," and this creates a tension.

"But now I see that in your heart, too, there is no room for me, my dear hermit," Ivan says to Alyosha with unexpected feeling. "The formula 'everything is permitted,' I will not renounce, and what then? Will you renounce me for that? Will you?"
Alyosha stood up, went over to him in silence, and gently kissed him on the lips.
"Literary theft!" Ivan cried, suddenly going into some kind of rapture. (p. 263)


Interpreting The Grand Inquisitor

I interpret Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor chapter as primarily a commentary on freedom, love, and human nature. The Grand Inquisitor is correct: the masses of humanity cannot handle the kind of radical freedom that Jesus suggested--the kind of freedom that is "seduced and captivated" by Jesus and has only his image as a guide. At their core, human beings will reject this absolute freedom. They need more; they need miracle, mystery, and authority.

The Grand Inquisitor embodies two perspectives on how to approach this tension between freedom and human nature; actually he lives out these two perspectives. He first embraces absolute freedom and seeks to become one of the chosen ones. The result of this choice is isolation from human kind. But the Grand Inquisitor finds that this approach to freedom is something that people will not respond to in masses. People don't want it and can't even comprehend it. To continue to live his life out in absolute freedom is to be an island to himself and to isolate himself from humanity. He would be free and one of the elite, but he wants to lead "the weak" masses to happiness. Hence, he changes course to a second approach.

The second approach is to call on the powers of miracle, mystery, and authority--to unite human beings under the power of a religion that provides for people's physical needs, gives them laws to govern their consciences, and will punish and/or ostracize anyone who diverges from the institution. This approach grants human beings comfort, security, and happiness.

These two perspectives also represent the two dominant Christian sects: Protestantism and Catholicism. Dostoevsky is presenting something of a caricature of these approaches to Christianity: a focus on individual purity with a small group of "chosen ones" (Protestantism) or a power structure that seeks to unify all people under one institution, discarding absolute freedom but providing humanity's true needs (Catholicism).

I think Dostoevsky is rejecting these two caricatures in favor of something far more simple. I think he endorses the idea of absolute freedom, but places it in the context of the chaos of the world. So, absolute freedom expresses itself in unconditional love as it interacts with "the weak" masses. Rather than unite the world under an institution or pursue personal freedom at the cost of the masses, Dostoevsky offers us a gentle kiss on bloodless lips.

In other words, the freedom and love offered by Christ is something that cannot be institutionalized, captured in creeds, or even understood, but it must be demonstrated in the world and for the world. That is, the only thing that counts is "faith expressing itself through love," as Paul says in Galatians 5.

Dostoevsky's vision is for a world that is transformed by love through the touch of love. Freedom and love cannot be captured through the institution but must be transfered by demonstration. The Grand Inquisitor, then, is not necessarily "wrong," he has just failed to appreciate and experience that the true transformation of humanity occurs by acts of love. This is what truly sets people free.


The Grand Inquisitor and the problem of evil

My last move is to situation The Grand Inquisitor as a response to the Rebellion chapter. Ivan's rebellion is to reject God's world, and by implication he rejects God as well. The world contains absurd and incomprehensible evil. This absurdity is compounded exponentially when God is introduced in the picture: it is the age-old question of how a loving God could allow such a world.

In such a wicked and chaotic world, those who suffer dare not forgive; they do not have the right to forgive. Alyosha introduces Jesus: the sinless one can forgive, he has the right.

I think that Ivan's answer to Alyosha is brilliant, and it proves Dostoevsky's overall theme of the chapter and of the book (see above). In an absurd world of chaotic evil, only an absurd love will transform. Absurdity is answered by absurdity. It need not make sense because the evil we encounter cannot be rationally comprehended.

Ivan never states that Jesus does not have the "right" to forgive, so it seems as though he stands by his point: we dare not forgive. But even Ivan recognizes that there is power when one kisses the bloodless lips of another. Forgiveness and unconditional love transform; to do so is to be truly free. It cannot be understood, but this is the whole point.

The "whole answer," as Ivan puts it, is to be set free through forgiveness and love. Jesus never says a word to the Grand Inquisitor; he allows him to express his frustration. The only thing Jesus does is express love through his kiss. This leaves the reader to decide if such love and forgiveness is possible or even desirable. Should such freedom be pursued? Can such transformation occur? Dostoevsky's text itself seems to be an attempt to illustrate how absolute freedom might be expressed and pursued and to leave for the reader the question of whether an absurd love can truly overcome an absurd world--whether love can inspire "the weak" to be transformed and "the chosen ones" to engage and demonstrate absolute freedom.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Countdown to Dostoevsky

Once again we are counting down to more Dostoevsky discussion.

We will be discussion The Grand Inquisitor chapter. You can click on the link to take you to the text. Like all novels, it's best to read the chapter in the context of the whole book. However, this particular section is very readable and thought-provoking even when it stands on its own.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What is God's relation to evil?

Break out those musty, dusty old systematic theology texts, kids. We're going to do some old school theologizing.

Our discussion on Dostoevsky's Rebellion chapter has stirred a good deal of discussion on God's relation to evil. We will return to Dostoevsky and the Grand Inquisitor soon, but in the meantime I would like to explore three different theological approaches to evil. Specifically, we are exploring how these different theological perspectives view God's relationship to evil.

Let's begin with Calvinism. And who better to represent Calvinism than...well....John Calvin?

For Calvin, God's sovereignty over creation means that nothing happens apart from his will. All things that happen are decreed and have been determined by God's will. There are some moderate forms of Calvinism that distinguish between what God "determines" and what God "permits." According to these more moderate Calvinists, God determines good but merely permits evil. In this way, they seek to create distance between God and evil, thereby creating no confusion regarding the goodness of God. Not so for John Calvin, the original Calvinist.

In the Institutes I.18.1, Calvin explicitly rejects a distinction between what God determines and what he permits: "The distinction was devised between doing and permitting because to many this difficulty seemed inexplicable, that Satan and all the impious are so under God's hand and power that he directs their malice to whatever end seems good to him....Whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments. God wills that the false King Ahab be deceived; the devil offers his services to this end; he is sent, with a definite command, to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets [I Kings 22:20, 22]....It would be ridiculous for the Judge only to permit what he wills to be done, and not also to decree it and to command its execution by his ministers."

Calvin cites many passages that he believes demonstrates that God is an active participant, not merely passively granting permission to evil doers. The primary citation here is Acts 2:23 and 4:28: "The Jews intended to destroy Christ; Pilate and his soldiers complied with their mad desire; yet in solemn prayer the disciples confess that all the impious ones had done nothing except what 'the hand and plan' of God had decreed." (I.18.1)

Following his citations, Calvin summarizes: "From these it is more than evident that they babble and talk absurdly who, in place of God's providence, substitute bare permission as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended upon human will." (I.18.1)

For Calvin, there will be no talk of assigning evil to the human will. It is God's providential work all the way down: the good, the bad, and the ugly are all ultimately the result of God's providence.

Evil does not exist because of free choices; rather, evil is God's will. This God accomplishes, in part, by working "inwardly in men's minds." (I.18.2) God "blinds men's minds (Isa. 29:14), smites them with dizziness (cf. Deut. 28:28; Zech. 12:4), makes them drunk with the spirit of drowsiness (Isa. 29:10), casts madness u pon them (Rom. 1:28), hardens their hearts (Ex. 14:17 and passim)." (I.18.2)

Even the work of Satan is under God's control: "I confess, indeed, that it is often by means of Satan's intervention that God acts in the wicked, but in such a way that Satan performs his part by God's impulsion and advances as far as he is allowed." (I.18.2)

Calvin goes on to cite I Sam. 16:14, Ezek. 14:9, and Rom. 1:28, 29, and then concludes: "To sum up, since God's will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works." (I.18.2)

It is at this point that Calvin responds to two possible objections. First, if God wills both good and evil, it would seem as though God had two wills, two divided wills. Calvin begins by citing I Sam. 2:25 ("Eli's sons did not obey their father because God willed to slay them"), Ps. 115:3 ("God, who resides in heaven, does whatever he pleases"), Isa. 45:7 ("he creates light and darkness, that he forms good and bad"), Amos 3:6 ("nothing evil happens that he himself has not done"), and Deut. 19:5 ("he who is killed by a chance slip of the ax has been divinely given over to the striker's hand"). (I.18.3)

Having cited more references, Calvin concludes that God's will is not divided but "one and simple." It is merely "our mental incapacity" that fails to grasp "how in divers ways it wills and does not will something to take place." Here Calvin cites Augustine who notes that God can will something that human beings cannot (and should not) will. "For through the bad wills of evil men God fulfills what he righteously wills." The (somewhat perplexing) conclusion of the matter is that "nothing is done without God's will, not even that which is against his will." (I.18.3)

The next objection that Calvin takes issue with is that if God governs the plans and intentions of the ungodly, then he is the author of all wickedness and human beings do not deserve to be damned for actions that God has willed. Calvin points out that human beings are rightly judged because they do their evil out of their own evil desires and the sin that is within them. (I.18.4)

But what if all of this just doesn't sit well?

"But if some people find difficulty in what we are now saying--namely, that there is no agreement between God and man, where man does by God's just impulsion what he ought not to do--let them recall what the same Augustine points out in another passage: 'Who does not tremble at these judgments, where God works even in evil men's hearts whatever he wills, yet renders to them according to their desserts?'" (I.18.4) We ought not reject the truth because of "squeamishness," nor should we deny "clear Scriptural proofs" because it exceeds our "mental capacity." (I.18.4) For Calvin, this is one of the "mysteries" of God that we should not question simply because we cannot understand it.

Any passages that speak of God changing his mind or leaving the future open (see Open Theism, below) should be considered a product of God dumbing himself down so that we can understand him. It is as though God "lisps" to us: "as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us." When God describes himself in human terms, "such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness." (I.13.1)

Brief Evaluation
Calvinism takes into account the many biblical suggestions that God determines all things, even evil.
Calvin cannot accurately take account of passages that describe God's openness to change, the openness of the world, and the seeming absurdity of the world. (See Open Theism, below)
Calvinism seems to be confused--if God determines evil, how is God himself not evil? Or at least less than perfectly good? Despite Calvin's protests to the contrary, it is hard to see how God does not become a terrifying, determining force for good or evil.
Also, it seems a bit unreasonable that Calvin dismisses contradictory elements in his theology by simply appealing to "the mystery of God" or to the feeble intelligence of human beings.
Links of Interest:
John Drury's short summary on Calvin's view of providence (from this section of the Institutes.
John Murray's "Calvin on the Sovereignty of God"
Wikipedia article on Calvinism

Open Theism
Of all of the systematic approaches to God's relation to evil, Open Theism does the most to distance God from evil and affirm his absolute goodness. There is no confusion: God is good and has nothing to do with evil. As an expression of his love, God grants humanity the freedom to choose evil. As such, evil is completely the result of free choice.

Open Theists are incompatiblists: for a choice to be truly free, it cannot be determined in advance. To be a free choice, the choice must be able to legitimately go either way. This means that one cannot either determine or even know what a choice is in advance. For example, suppose I go to your home tomorrow night for ice cream. You offer me my choice of my two favorite flavors: mint chocolate chip and moose tracks. If I am to freely choose between mint or moose tracks, my choice cannot be pre-determined. For an Open Theist it is almost true by definition that if my choice is determined in advance, then it cannot be truly free.

So, God grants humanity freedom of choice. God does not pre-ordain evil, but evil exists because human beings have used their freedom to choose evil. God is not the author of evil. God is good. On the Open Theism account, God is actively engaged to destroy the works of evil, and he in no way wills that such evil should occur.

Open Theists see in Scripture an openness in the future. Not only this, but because the future is open, it is unknowable. God is thus a participant (albeit quite a superior one!) in the openness of the world. God, in fact, demonstrates openness himself, as he responds to the choices of human beings. God deals with humanity most fundamentally out of love, and it is only through freedom that love can be most fully expressed.

A few of the Scriptures that imply an open universe and an open God are: Gen 6:6 (God repented that he had made humanity), 1 Sam 15:11 (God regrets that Saul became king), Jeremiah 18:8 (God repents of the evil he had determined to inflict), Jonah 3:4, 10 (Out of his mercy and compassion, God changes his mind and does not destroy Ninevah), and Isaiah 38:1, 5; 2 Kings 20:1, 5 (cf. 1 Chronicles 32:24) where Hezekiah plead with God and God changes his mind in regards to Hezekiah's plight.

Open Theism is presented as a more livable theology. Open Theists argue that often the traditional theological formulations of doctrine develop a tension between belief and lifestyle. For example, a Christian will believe that the future is closed and determined, and yet he or she will be expected to pray for a certain outcome to take place. This begs the question of why one should pray at all if the future is determined.

Brief Evaluation
God is not the author of evil.
God's goodness is preserved, without question or contradiction with other assertions of God's "providence."
God both grants freedom to human beings and also absolutely opposes evil: as such there is no need to even suggest that God "permits" evil; he categorically stands against it and fights with all who wish to eradicate it.
Open Theism has a difficult time accounting for the many portions of Scripture that suggest that God providentially controls all things, even evil.

Notable advocates: John Sanders, Greg Boyd, and Clark Pinnock.

Links of Interest:
Here is my lengthy Introduction to Open Theism paper.
Open Theism in a Nutshell is a summary of the above research.


Molinism is a rather complex theology developed by the 14th century Spanish Jesuit priest Luis Molina. It attempts to hold together God's providential control (Calvinism) and human free will (Open Theism). Molinism does this by suggesting that God has middle knowledge.

Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of the free choices that we humans would make if we were put into a given situation. Let's say that I am determined to vote this fall in the Presidential election. Ergo, I go to the ballot box and have a decision to vote for McCain, Obama, or some obscure Independent or Libertarian candidate. Given God's extensive knowledge of me and his thorough knowledge of these circumstances, God knows the candidate for whom I will cast my vote. (In this case, probably Obama....given what I know about myself, anyway!)

God possesses a seemingly infinite array of knowledge of an infinite number of different scenarios. Since each choice we make might be different in a different situation, there are a wide variety of different scenarios that God knows. Together all these choices come within a seemingly infinite number of possible worlds. God knows how I will vote in all of these myriad possible worlds.

According to Molinism, God freely chose one of these possible worlds out of a seemingly infinite possible number of choices. God knew just what would happen and what we would freely choose in this world. So, God freely chose to create this world out of all of his possibilities.

So.....how does Molinism explain God's relation to evil?

God predestined and foreknew all evil that would happen in the sense that God created a world in which all possible free choices were known by him in advance. In this way, the Molinist would claim to have the best of all worlds (pun intended) by preserving human freedom and God's providential control over all things. I can make a free decision to vote for Obama in the fall election, and God can also claim that this decision was not out of his control.

Thus, when people murder, cheat, abuse children, or otherwise inflict evil on others, they do so as a free person, not as though they were somehow controlled or even permitted by God. On the other hand, this world of free choices is exactly that which God intended.

Matthew 11:23 seems to be one biblical example of middle knowledge. Here we have Jesus saying that if certain miracles had been performed in Sodom, then Sodom would still be standing "to this day," suggesting that the people of Sodom would have repented. This seems to indicate that Jesus knew what the free choice of individuals would have been if circumstances were different. To me, this is a rather powerful suggestion: that people would have changed the course of their lives if Jesus would have performed the same miracles that he performed in Capernaum.

Brief Evaluation
Molinism seeks to preserve God's control over all things in the universe (per certain Scripture references) and human freedom. If successful, it would explain the compatibility of two theological concepts that have seemed contradictory.
Molinism may be open to charges from both sides: God still chose to create a wretched world, and it is questionable as to whether human beings are truly free.
One common objection is the "grounding objection": can an action truly be "free" if it is known ahead of time?

Notable Advocates: Luis Molina, William Lane Craig, Alfred Freddoso.

Links of Interest:
This link lists several of William Lane Craig's writings on Divine Omniscience:
Alfred Freddoso: http://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/papers/molinism.htm
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Middle Knowledge:
Molinism dot com: http://molinism.com/