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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dobson sends a "Yo Mama" to Obama

Dobson accuses Obama of 'distorting' Bible:
Conservative is critical of Dem's stance on how the Bible should guide policy

Here is a link to Obama's speech that reportedly caused Dobson's blood pressure to rise:

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

Obama then goes on to situate this tension within the abortion debate:

I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion.

But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason. (italics added)

Back to the MSNBC article with Dobson's response: "... He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."

Dobson reserved some of his harshest criticism for Obama's argument that the religiously motivated must frame debates over issues like abortion not just in their own religion's terms but in arguments accessible to all people.

He said Obama, who supports abortion rights, is trying to govern by the "lowest common denominator of morality," labeling it "a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."

I'm not sure what Dobson is referring to here, by talking about a "fruitcake interpretation," but Dobson is clearly upset about Obama's speech. This from The Post

Dobson said he had just recently learned of Obama's speech and that reading it caused his blood pressure to rise.

"Why did this man jump on me? I haven't said anything near that?" said Dobson, whose comments were first reported by the Associated Press today, which received an early copy of Dobson's remarks.

In response to Obama's contention that religious voters had an obligation to "translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values", Dobson asked: "Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?"

The thing is, I'm not sure why Dobson is so upset. Obama seems to me to be simply making the point that an American leader can't legislate for everyone based on the fact that he hears voices from god (whether in the Bible or in his head, etc.). I don't know that Obama is denying Dobson his right to express his beliefs, just that as a government official, Obama can't say, "You know, God told me to do this." I think that's a fair position.

Also, it seems as though Obama's hermeneutic is a bit more sound that Dobson's. As we have discussed on this blog, the New Testament writers (Paul in particular) do not seem to divide up the Old Testament law into "laws that only applied to the Israelites that do not apply anymore" and "laws that applied to the Israelites and still apply to us today." Instead, the Christian is no longer under law (Galatians 5:18). The new life is one of Spirit living in freedom. To go back and pick and choose some Old Testament laws that sound like they might work good for us Americans in the 21st century might have its place, but it seems a bit arbitrary, and I'm not sure this is such a good idea in our pluralized culture. In other words, I think I agree with Obama more than Dobson on this one.

The interesting political ramifications.....Dobson is considering not voting b/c McCain isn't conservative enough for him. What's McCain supposed to do? He can't publicly reach out to Dobson or he will be labeled as right-wing religious. Obama, on the other hand, can be cool and let it play out. He can reach out to the Dobson's and other evangelicals of the world and express a desire to "work together for the common good." In this way, he can pick up a good deal of votes from disenfranchised evangelicals, or evangelicals who are not content with the state of the Republican party.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Abba Father

Over the past year, one of the things that has changed about my spirituality is that I feel I have moved from a pursuit of perfection, arrival, and answers; I have moved into a place of facing my own brokenness and darkness....The interesting thing is that it has almost nothing to do with my actions; at least, as far as I can see.....I used to evaluate my spiritual success on the basis of what I have done or not done: did I look at porn? Did I snap at someone? Did I honor God w/ my finances? etc, ect. But the brokeness of which I speak is different.....it sometimes feels like a chasm in my soul....an unexplained void.....i sometimes just feel like weeping....sometimes I do.....and it all feels God related....the psalmist's cry comes to mind, "Where can I go to meet with God?"....this Pilgram has definitely regressed....it seems as though the more I have drifted away from outward, religious expressions and formalities (and the more I have drifted from institutionalized Christianity), the more I have turned inward......and the more inward I have turned, the more I have discovered emptiness and vacuums.....i used to have no time for this kind of thing; i could evaluate my soul based on more objective criteria: what did i do? what did i not do? did i have a "pure heart"? did i have "impure motivations"?....but the whole religious thing kind of went supernova for me and the resulting gravitational collapse formed a black hole.....I'm no scientist, but as I understand it, light exists in a black hole it's just that its trapped within the darkness.

Special thanks to the Owl for sending me a copy of Peter Rollins's book, How (Not) to Speak of God. I recommend it; it's a very thoughtful exploration of how faith might look like if things like struggle, exploration, silence, the importance of doubt, and God's transcendence and unknowability are privileged. The official description is, "explore the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the emerging church." The prose can be a bit dense if you are not used to reading philosophy and theology, but it is not an academic book, so it is definitely doable. It's not a long read, but a bit provocative in spots.

We will discuss Rollins again, but for now there is a quote that ties in with some of my general feelings and spiritual experiences over the past year or so. Rollins talks about the "God-shaped hole," but not in the sense of a hole that is filled by God. Instead, "the God-shaped hole can be understood as precisely that which is left in the aftermath of God."

"The believer, far from once having a God-shaped hole in his or her being that is now filled, is one who has a God-shaped hole formed in the aftermath of God, a hole that compels them to seek after that which they already have. The Christian religion arises as a space that testifies to God by testifying to a God who created, but who cannot be contained, within the space. The void left by God is not unlike a type of black hole, full of something that cannot be seen and which draws our gaze into the unseen.....Faith, in this rendering, can thus be described as a wound that heals." (p. 52)

Rollins goes on to quote Pascal: "Finally, let them recognize that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him." (p. 53)

I just came across Romans 8:15-16 as translated by the NRS,

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God

Most translations end the sentence after "Abba! Father!" and then a begin a new sentence with "It is that very Spirit..." So, the NIV for example: For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.

Why might that be significant? Well, if the NRS translation is correct, then it is in the act of crying "Abba! Father!" that we have the most intimate assurance that God's Spirit is with us. In other words, we are most assured of the presence of God through pain, doubt, and confusing.

Regardless of whether the NRS is correct, these verses certainly refer us to Jesus in the Garden, struggling with the ramifications of the cross that he was going to bear.

Rollins also makes a connection with the cross:

"Doubt provides the context out of which real decision occurs and real love is tested....It is precisely in the midst of a Holy Saturday [the 24 hours between the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ] experience that the decision to follow Christ becomes truly authentic. A faith that can only exist in the light of victory and certainty is one which really affirms the self while pretending to affirm Christ, for it only follows Jesus in the belief that Jesus has conquered death. Yet a faith that can look at the horror of the cross and still say 'yes' is one that says 'no' to the self in saying 'yes' to Christ....The believer ought to acknowledge and even celebrate this dark night of the soul, understanding that this is not a threatening darkness which conceals an enemy but rather is the intimate darkness within which we embrace faith." (p. 34-35)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Click here to become a Christian

I was on myspace tonight and ran across an advertisement for Jesus and salvation. (As an aside, I heard today on the news that myspace was not meeting revenue expectations and so they have been ramping up ads and being more aggressive...like plastering a huge bat across the screen to advertise the new Batman movie.)

Here's what the ad walks you through:

1. God Loves You!

The Bible says, "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life"

The problem is that . . .
2. All of us have done, said or thought things that are wrong. This is called sin, and our sins have separated us from God.

The Bible says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God is perfect and holy, and our sins separate us from God forever. The Bible says “The wages of sin is death.”

The good news is that, about 2,000 years ago,
3. God sent His only Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins.

Jesus is the Son of God. He lived a sinless life and then died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. “God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

Jesus rose from the dead and now He lives in heaven with God His Father. He offers us the gift of eternal life -- of living forever with Him in heaven if we accept Him as our Lord and Savior. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me."

God reaches out in love to you and wants you to be His child. "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe on His name." You can choose to ask Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and come in to your life as your Lord and Savior.
4. If you want to accept Christ as Savior and turn from your sins, you can ask Him to be your Savior and Lord by praying a prayer like this:

"Lord Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. Please forgive my sins and give me the gift of eternal life. I ask you in to my life and heart to be my Lord and Savior. I want to serve you always."

Did you pray this prayer?

[end of ad]

You now have the opportunity to click "Yes," which leads you to a Congratulations page with an opportunity to sign up for more info. on how to grow as a Christian. Or you can click "I have questions," which again allows you to submit your personal info. and ask your questions.

I'm a bit divided on this one.

A part of me is offended by the fact that we are essentially selling salvation and making Christianity available at the click of a button. (I'm sure Billy Sunday is smiling down on us.) Does signing up for Christianity really result in life transformation? Do we really need more Christian converts? Maybe we just need to focus on transforming the ones we've got into a living and loving body of Christ.

On the other hand I think to myself, "Don't be such a spiritual elitist, judgmental prick, Jon. Maybe this will transform someone's life. So, who are you to judge?"

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Love and Adultery and Ethical Scenarios

Eve had known about Adam's affairs for years now. He was an important man, and she perhaps should have known better than to expect fidelity. But when you are young, you are usually naive. Initially, she had confronted him, threatened to leave, etc. But eventually she just kind of accepted the fact. Her little boy, Paul, was the love of her life. He had such energy and passion for life; like his father, perhaps. So Eve stayed. Yes, she loved Adam; and she loved Paul. It was difficult, but all things considered, she counted herself lucky to experience the love of her son, and their bond was exceptionally strong and unusually intimate, even for a mother and son.

When Eve began her affair with Doctor Robert, she never questioned the ethics of the situation. Adam and Eve had an unspoken agreement.

Robert and Eve cared about each other. His affection was sincere, and he understood Eve's desire to hold together her family. It was painful for him, but he understood. Robert and Eve just got each other; it clicked. Eventually, though, the heavy feeling of watching Eve leave him became too much for Robert. He had to move on; he had too leave.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Master's Treasure

The stuff you own ends up owning you, says Tyler from Fight Club. Jesus' message was similar: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The point of both is that we are not the master of our things, but the slave. We do not invest in the things our heart treasures; rather, the heart follows the treasure. We become what we buy; we are what we eat.

My take on the general mood of American Christianity (my very humble opinion) is that one can have stuff as long as one has a good perspective. So, for example, we can justify buying that bigger house if we say, "This is the Lord's house!" It's all a matter of perspective: if we have the correct mind set, then we can buy more stuff and increase our standard of living. Hence, the boat is not my boat, it is God's boat that I am going to use for ministry and for God's glory.

But is this perspective legitimate? Is it possible to merely be an "owner" of stuff, or is it more correct to understand that the more we have, the more we are controlled and shaped by our things? For example, as a house size gets bigger, does the person who "owns" it get smaller? Does ownership of more things steal away bits and pieces of our souls? And does this happens regardless of whether it is "God's house" or "God's ministry boat"? I suggest that the idea that "It's not my house, but God's!" is merely a fantasy. It is true that it is not your house, but neither is it God's house. The house belongs to itself and to the complex cultural and societal matrix in which it is embedded.

To the extent that we accumulate more stuff, buy the boats, and take out a bigger mortgage for a bigger house, we participate in the cultural/societal matrix; this means we give away our control and our souls to the culture/society. I don't know that this is necessarily "wrong" (I'm not here to make a value judgment), but I do think that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can sanctify our stuff as "belonging to God." Each purchase we make costs us more than the money we give; we literally pay with our lives and give ourselves over to the control of our possessions. Again, I'm not saying that this is wrong; I'm merely presenting this as a discussion point.

So.....on that note, it is interesting to spot a new trend amongst American consumers. In a land of unparalleled affluence (which is, perhaps, unprecedented in all of human history) people are cutting back.

Here are a few selections (emphasis added) from an article in Time, How to Live with just 100 Things. I find it interesting to note the psychology (and perhaps spirituality) that goes into "ownership" of things:

Excess consumption is practically an American religion. But as anyone with a filled-to-the-gills closet knows, the things we accumulate can become oppressive. With all this stuff piling up and never quite getting put away, we're no longer huddled masses yearning to breathe free; we're huddled masses yearning to free up space on a countertop. Which is why people are so intrigued by the 100 Thing Challenge, a grass-roots movement in which otherwise seemingly normal folks are pledging to whittle down their possessions to a mere 100 items.

But what about Christmas ornaments? Family heirlooms? Those skinny jeans you hope to--but will probably never--wear again? "It's a very emotional process," says professional organizer Julie Morgenstern. Her new book, When Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life, lays out a plan for clearing out both physical and sentimental clutter. "Often these are things that represent who you once were," she says. "But once their purpose is over, they just keep you stagnant." SHED, by the way, is an acronym for "separate the treasures, heave the trash, embrace your identity from within and drive yourself forward." Which is a handy little guide to Dumpstering your way into a state of Zen.

"It comes down to the products vs. the promise," says organizational consultant Peter Walsh, who characterizes himself as part contractor, part therapist. "It's not necessarily about the new pots and pans but the idea of the cozy family meals that they will provide. People are finding that their homes are full of stuff, but their lives are littered with unfulfilled promises."

Walsh isn't surprised that decluttering is so popular these days. Between worrying about gas prices and the faltering economy, people's first reaction, he says, "is often, 'I need to get some control over my life, even if it is just a tidy kitchen counter.'"

Monday, June 02, 2008

Law-Freedom-Spirit-Flesh: A Preliminary Summary

The thing that has primarily occupied my thoughts for the last several months has been a theology of freedom, law, Spirit, and flesh. Forgive me for including so much biographical information. If you would like, you can simply skip down to the end and get to the theological/biblical portion of this post; but for me, my theology and my walk of faith have come together in a way that makes it difficult to separate the two; theology has been both theoretical and biographical.

Within the last year, several events and conversations have kind of converged on me to make me rethink the essence of my theology of sanctification and my own personal spiritual walk. I was raised by parents whose profession was always ministry in conservative communities of faith, and I have always taken my faith very seriously, even from a very young age. And yet, it is no exaggeration for me to say that I have subjected the entirety of my thinking on Christianity, spirituality, and faith to a complete rethinking.

Law and Religion
A major factor that has spurred me on to rethink my approach to faith is my own experiences within a community of faith. I believe that many of the people that I have rubbed shoulders with in the church have been sincere and good people, but for me, remaining in the institutionalized church became unbearable. It was something that I think gradually built up within me over the course of a few years, and it culminated in me stepping away from the religious scene last fall.

Personally, I felt like I had gradually grown very complacent, even though I was doing everything "right," at least by the standards of my church: going to church every Sunday, helping to lead a ministry in the church, active in the life of the church, taking classes in seminary, and generally having a desire to make a difference in the world and advance the kingdom of God.

So, why the complacency in my life? Well, a complete answer to that question may not be possible in this life, but my complacency and general state of spiritual depression was one of the motivations for me to rethink many of my presumptions about the Christian life and my theology of sanctification.

This brings me to my next point: rethinking theology.

Galatians 5: Paul's Theology of Freedom
Paul's theology in Galatians 5 is foreshadowed in various ways in what he writes prior to specifically addressing a theology of freedom. Paul is dealing with a church that is moving (or has moved) itself back under law. One of the primary ways in which they have done this is through an emphasis on the importance of circumcision. Paul seems baffled that they would prefer a lifestyle of law, especially after tasting freedom: "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (3:3)

I think it is important to note that in chapter two, Paul says that he has died, and Christ now lives in him. So, the issue of freedom, then, cannot be reduced to a I'm-in-it-for-me approach to life that puts one's self at the center. What freedom is not is a self-absorbed and self-centered lifestyle that takes no account for one's actions.

In 5:1 Paul makes the profound announcement that Christ has set us free for freedom. Law brings us under bondage and slavery (chap. 4), but Christ set us free for freedom. The contrast is important: Law and Freedom are set against one another; they are opposed to one another. The direction of the believer's life should be away from law/bondage/slavery and into freedom.

I find it interesting that Paul is both redundant as well as redundant: we have been set free for freedom. This repetition seems to me to make the point that being set free means that one must then cultivate a life of freedom. If a slave is set free, he may be free in principal but having a free mindset is another thing. Conversely, a slave might be free in their mind/perspective but a slave in the reality. The Galatians declared themselves free and then lived in slavery to law.

Moving along in chapter five, Paul clearly states that living by the Spirit results in not "gratifying" the desires of the flesh (5:16). There is a certain conflict involved between the Spirit and the flesh; this struggle is so great that there is a sense in which we have no control (v. 17). Being out of control does not eliminate choice or responsibility, because there is still an exhortation to "live by the Spirit" (v. 16), but Paul does highlight the fact that the spiritual life is not a matter of formulaic repetition or even good intentions. There is something chaotic and unpredictable that lies beneath, and it appears as though this chaos must be worked out in each individual life. (And, I would also add, this working out is best within the context of a community of freedom and openness where free individuals can challenge each other and point out blind spots.)

In verse 18, Paul drops the bomb: If you are led by the Spirit you are not under law.

Paul is urging his readers not to use the measuring stick of law. After all, if one is led by the Spirit, why re-introduce a new standard? The life of being led by the Spirit is contrasted with a life lived by the law. This is a bomb of nuclear proportions because it undermines the work of the religious institutions. Religious institutions invariably work to establish and maintain the importance and primacy of law: sexual norms, societal/cultural laws, spiritual laws, moral laws, and laws/norms of all kinds. Institutions are formed around core values, and these values (almost without exception) uphold law. Paul here suggests that being led by the Spirit takes the believer beyond law.

So, in summary, I see Paul comparing and contrasting these four ideas as follows: The life of the Spirit is one of freedom that moves away from a life of living under the law according to the flesh. Spirit is tied to freedom, and law is tied to flesh. These seem to be two very distinct ways of living life; two economies or states of mind. It is by the Spirit that the believer moves into true freedom, which necessarily moves the believer out of a life and a mindset dominated by a struggle between the law and the flesh.

Psychology of Law
My good friend John Doyle (aka Ktismatics) has a very intriguing post in which he ties together Paul's theology with the psychological/philosophical musings of Jacques Lacan. John notes the Lacanian perspective that, "When there is no lack — when everything demanded is surrendered — desire is stymied. Nothing is left to be desired. Desire springs from lack…Satisfaction buries desire." [Freedom from Desire] John then ties this to Romans chapter 7 and finds a remarkable parallel between the two viewpoints. Paul says in Romans 7, "I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COVET.' But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment,
produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead."

Where is the parallel between Pauline theology and Lacanian psychology? In this: prohibiting something creates a lack of that thing, and this lack generates desire. Says John,

The Greek word translated as “covet” here is the same word that’s translated as “desire” in Galatians 5. I would not have known about desiring if the Law had not said, “you shall not desire.” This I think is precisely what Lacan has in mind. When there is no gap between demand and surrender, when nothing prohibits fulfillment, then there is no desire. Desire is created by the Law, by the prohibition it inserts between you and what you want.

So, on this Pauline-Lacanian theory, law will necessarily stimulate desire; the two are connected, and the struggle between them will always exist. For Paul, though, the life of the believer is to go beyond this law-desire death trap; Paul wants us to leave law and desire behind and usher in freedom through a walk with the Spirit.

John sums up this Paul-Lacan reflection by saying, "The Law-bound person can never do what he wants, not just because what he wants is prohibited, but because his wants are themselves distorted by the prohibitions attached to them by the Law. Under the Law want is inextricably bound to the desire to sin. There is no freedom in this kind of desire. But the Spirit releases want from prohibition, fulfillment from violation. Only in the Spirit are you free to 'do the things that you please.'”

Contemporary Religious Life
I see Paul presenting the believer with a real choice: either Spirit/freedom or law/flesh. If this interpretation is correct, then the implications are radical, because historically (and from my experiences), most Protestant visions of the Christian life retain the law as central to the life of the believer: they want the Spirit to fulfill the law, they do not want to go above and beyond law. But if the above interpretation of Paul is correct, then Paul is suggesting that one cannot have it both ways: either live by the Spirit in freedom, or forever allow one's self to be enmeshed in the struggle between the flesh and the law.

Most Protestants preach freedom, but retain law. To me, this is a confused approach. it is like a slave who is set free from his master, but still remains a slave in his mind and never has the perspective of a free man. Paul seems to suggest that we are free and not only should we be free in theory but free in fact. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

Is there a law-desire struggle that is part of the structure of our world? If there is, then it would appear as though those of us who uphold the highest moral standards would be perhaps undermining the very morals we seek to protect. Perhaps the higher one's standard of law, the greater one's desire increases. There is clearly a culture war in the United States that has been going on from the inception of our nation. There are many who see themselves as defenders of truth and morality, and they form communities of faith to hold themselves to the rigorous standards of law. Despite what good intentions they may have, is it possible that relying so heavily on law actually puts individuals in a no-win situation?

For me, questions remain: Is it at all possible to avoid law? And what does it mean to "walk with the Spirit" and live in freedom? But despite these remaining queries, I think Paul is presenting us with a radical freedom and an intriguing reflection of our humanness. These are my preliminary thoughts.