Personal Truth Is Always in Process of Being Ascertained

In regard to my last blog I hasten to point out that Forging Ploughshares is made up of those who identify as Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Eastern leaning, Mennonite, unaffiliated, and simply Christian.  The malaise of late modernity that has caused some to consciously turn to authoritarianism (among so-called Trad Catholics or ultramontanists arguing for extreme forms of papal infallibility, the Cult of Trump Evangelicalism – i.e. there is nothing Trump could do to lose the support of Jerry Falwell Jr. and his ilk, or those who blindly entrust themselves to various episcopal forms) cannot simply be identified with Catholics, Episcopalians, or evangelicals (as if to equate these with authoritarianism) but with those (of many stripes) willing to give up on the efficacy of ordinary human agency.  The issue of authority looms large in the contemporary turn from rationalist foundationalism and autonomous individualism to various forms of relativism. The role of apostolic authority, biblical authority, church authority, and episcopal authority, is being shaped, in some quarters, by the notion that the individual is incapable of ascertaining the truth and authoritarianism is the answer. This hyper-conservative backlash to modernity, sometimes mistakenly perceived as orthodoxy, is simply the end point of the modern (late modernity).

 If modernity declared the individual, in and of himself (free of culture, tradition and authority) as adequate for attaining absolute truth, postmodernism or late modernity has declared the individual (though he be nurtured in the richest of intellectual and theological traditions) as incapable of ascertaining truth.  The turn to forms of authoritarianism, certainly not typical of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Evangelicalism, finds expression in all of the above. Young radical Catholic conservatives who would refuse the liturgical changes of Vatican II (which Pope Francis has declared irreversible) typify a more widespread millennial response to, what may seem to be the only alternative, a vacuous nihilism. Mindless evangelicalism, stunningly represented in that most mystical of the late modern religions – the Cult of Trump, does not represent evangelicalism but typifies, I am arguing, a response found across the theological spectrum (though It may be easiest to quantify among hyper-conservative Roman Catholics, which in no way amounts to a restoration of Orthodoxy but a sort of hyper-orthodoxy).     

The alternative to the turn to authoritarianism must, of necessity, entail revisiting the issue of what constitutes an individual and his capacities for truth. The role of authority (apostolic authority, biblical authority, and ecclesiastical authority) must be understood in light of anthropology. If a person consists of an innately immortal soul, a small piece of divinity, with interior access to the divine and bearing within the capacity for transcendence, then the autonomous individual need not rely on tradition or revelation as Truth is immediately accessible. This modern Gnosis might be expressed in a pure intellectualism or in the pursuit of an ecstatic experientialism but the goal is the same: attainment of the divine from within one’s own resources.  On the other hand, if a person is incapable of transcending a particular culture, a particular time, or a particular circumstance, then one is left with complete relativism and the need for a dictatorial divine intervention. These two extremes seem to mark the move of modernity but maybe this is always our choice in the absence of the New Testament possibility of participation in the divine enabled through the incarnation.

Paul succinctly sums up the possibilities by describing gnosis as either a noun or verb. Platonic, static, knowing of an object (the noun form) is suited to both objectivity (knowing it all or knowing “something” in Paul’s account) and total relativism (an impossibility of attaining the forms or knowing “nothing” according to Paul) and both extremes are represented by what, in I Co 8, Paul calls gnosis. The static knowers of Corinth have concluded that an idol is nothing and that God is known in contrast to this nothing. One knows God, the absolute something, over and against the nothing. Paul dismisses this static gnosis: if you know something (as opposed to nothing), if you have arrived at a buttoned-down knowledge, then you do not know as you ought (8:2).  Paul poses an alternative knowing, not the Greek noun form (attainment of an object), but the Hebraic verb form of knowing a person. In the Hebrew Scriptures to “know” is inclusive of sexual intimacy, the realm of love, and the knowing of persons (personal knowledge).

Martin Buber marks the same contrasting forms as I-it (knowledge as objective – mastery of an object) and I-thou (reciprocal, personal, self/other multidimensional) knowing. What will come to be called hermeneutical understanding (Gadamer, Ricoeur) or personal knowledge (Polanyi) might be identified with Paul’s reversal of knowledge: “whoever loves God is known by God” (8:3). The starting point for this knowing is not “I” but the fact that one is known and knows himself (“themselves” in the original plural pair) through seeing the self through the eyes of God. This self-involved knowledge begins, not with nothing and something, but with an outward moving love.

Paul references the shema but incorporates Christ as the means of access into the divine reality: “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:6, ESV). Dynamic knowing is premised upon knowing all things, including ourselves, as deriving from and sustained by the person of Christ. Ultimate reality is personal, which pertains to Paul’s original point in regard to idols. Yes, the so-called gods are nothing but the contrast with this nothing is a completely different order of knowing – not simply knowing something. Knowing God is not to know a fact about God or the fact of God – existence as over against non-existence.  Christ as part of the shema means that knowing the oneness of God is a historical, personal process, not just in the original event of the incarnation but in the unfolding of all of our lives in a particular historical circumstance. We do not control, own, or possess this truth but participate in it.

In Corinth the catchphrase “all of us possess knowledge,” betrays the sensibility of being able to estimate who counts as all of us or who is in and who is out as if truth is delimited to those in the know. This self-selected group is imposing their values onto other Christians by viewing themselves as “all of us” or all that are strong and knowing. I presume that any Church body which presumes to say “all of us and no more” falls under Paul’s critique. Truth cannot be institutionalized, passed on through birth, or fused with citizenship. This bottled up truth, by definition, cannot be equated with the infinite unfolding depth of personal truth.

In Christ the universal intersects with the contingencies of the personal and this knowledge cannot be codified or summed up as it is continuing to unfold within our lives. As Kevin Vanhoozer has described it, Christian knowing is not a pilgrimage (directionless wandering), nor is it a crusade (conquering mastery) but it is a missionary journey in which the truth of Christ unfolds for us as we go. A self-selected group, be it Christian Church, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, etc. cannot presume to encompass, codify, or sum up universal truth (and in their orthodox origins do not presume to do so).

Truth does not have a lineage that can be traced such that we simply stand in relationship to it in a geographical, physical, relationship as if it is an object to be received or an idol to be mindlessly obeyed. Where we obey without ascertaining for ourselves the truth that is imparted, we depersonalize what we would receive and relinquish what it means to be human. Every good bureaucrat, every good soldier, every unthinking citizen, presumes authority simply calls for obedience. If this means that one disclaims responsibility for their actions or for what they know and do not know this is to give up on being human.[1] Sin, after-all, is a refusal to know as you ought (a failed notion of authority) and is thus a willful refusal of the fullness of humanness. Personal truth passes through persons not only in its origin but in its end. Persons ascertain the truth in the fullness of what it means to be a person.

[1]In Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase.

No Authority Relieves Us of the Responsibility of Thought and Agency

In Japan the inclination to submit to authority, to maintain the harmony of the group, to not presume to have an opinion, has produced a series of dangerous cults, not the least of which was the Emperor cult which mobilized the nation in WWII.  I witnessed the recruiting efforts of Aum Shinrikyo, the most famous post War cult, in Shinjuku (a sound truck and dancing girls singing the “wondrous” name of their leader). The founder, Shoko Asahara, was able to gather followers from among graduates of elite universities and he formed his own shadow government and ministries in preparation for eventual takeover of Japan. In 1995 Aum chemists produced sarin gas used to kill passengers on the subway, for which (among other crimes and murders) Asahara and some 12 followers were executed last year. In every culture crowds will gather around a charismatic authority – whether emperor, pope, president, or cult leader. The willingness to acquiesce one’s agency to these figures, I have presumed, is counter to the manner in which the authority of Christ is exercised. I have been surprised by the turn of millennials to various forms of authoritarianism, not just in the megachurch but the many turning to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, ascending hierarchies, and a seeming willingness to relinquish healthy notions of individual agency.

I am completely sympathetic to a rejection of the woefully inadequate, ignorant, theologically misdirected, business model, that prevails in the typical local church body, to say nothing of seminaries and Bible colleges. We know precisely what it is to have the crudest of intellects, the morally suspect, the theologically illiterate, presume to rate our spirituality (literally, a formalized weapon used against us). Young preacher’s lives and careers are regularly destroyed by elders and leaders who have no notion of the personal and theological responsibility shepherds should bear. I understand the impetus to escape this callow and cavalier excuse for spiritual leadership.

The answer, however, may not be to entrust ourselves to contemporary High-Church bishops (vested as they sometimes are with Lordships, powers of war, powers to re-legislate scriptural authority, power to redefine biblical notions of sexuality, and powers to dictate orthodoxy and thought) and presume that the contemporary office resembles the humble office of the New Testament. While there must certainly be “good bishops,” the notion that one can selectively eliminate the bad (the unorthodox, the semi-Christian) misses that choosing your bishop is not an alternative and certainly not an alternative to individual agency and thought.

The reaction to autonomous individualism, perhaps characteristic of us baby boomers, seems to have swung the pendulum in the opposite direction toward notions that the Church relieves one of having to engage, study, reason, and presume individual responsibility for corporate action. Bishops, popes, hierarchy, may offer certain forms of security (not the least of which is job security) but the trade off should not be a truncated sense of personal responsibility.

Paul, in offering his “opinion” (which in I Co 7:6,25,40 he makes clear several times over is simply that) on marriage and singleness invites us into his reasoning process which stands as an open and continuing invitation as to how we are to balance reason, authority, and individual circumstance. Opinions may vary but there is no question that having an opinion is what Paul calls us to in persuading us of his opinion. Outside of the Church slaves, women, and social outcasts, were not presumed to have agency or to be persons in the full sense of the term and certainly were not considered worthy of having opinions. The no male nor female, no slave nor free, no Jew nor Gentile, polity of the Church means that all are equally persons. Even if human slavery and the necessities of gender and social status are determinative of identity outside of the Church, Paul makes it clear that in the Church it is “as if not” (7:29-31). Authority, even of the apostolic kind, invites and encourages the blossoming of a full humanity which is not autonomous individualism but neither is it a relinquishment of a fully formed life of the mind.

Paul is certainly willing to speak a “command” from God but he provides another crucial consideration for making moral judgments: “in view of the present necessity” (I Co 7:26). That necessity, as he makes clear, is one that takes the individual and her needs into account and only the individual is able to make a final determination (or form an opinion as Paul himself has done) as to how to coordinate the various criteria Paul poses. The individual’s situation and desires (under control or not), apostolic authority, and advancement of the Church and Kingdom are all part of the issues Paul suggests for consideration in determining whether to marry or remain single.  Individual determination of this sort was far from the norm of the day.

At the same time, Paul turns the Corinthians’ Gnostic inclinations back to the realities of embodiment, to the reality of the human sexual drive (“husbands and wives need to satisfy one another’s desires”), and continually tells them to take stock of their needs and desires and to balance this with the mission of Christ. Paul’s mode of reasoning, letter writing, discussion, draws all to the table so as to set forth his argument.  Certainly he is an authority, but he does not exercise this authority like a monarch or dictator but more like a guide sending fellow travelers down a path he knows.  This sort of authority presumes we too must know the way so as to go on. This truth is not simply acknowledged but absorbed, such that it becomes transformative.

Paul’s opinion in I Co 7, based on the idea that the Parousia or second coming is about to occur compels us to also account for our “present necessity,” a 2000-year delay in Christ’s return. Our own moral reasoning cannot elide the altered circumstance and contingencies we face. This is not a rejection of the authority of Paul but it is to follow the direction in which his authority points us: apostolic authority, through the guidance of the Spirit, calls us not to relinquish agency but to develop it and exercise it. Like the Bereans we are to search the Scriptures and confirm for ourselves, with all the contingencies of being human, the truth (Acts 17:11). Thinking is certainly not an unaided activity but exercise of the mind cannot be hired out.



Dancing in the Wilderness

Faith and I did not know we were standing on the precipice of the wilderness three years ago as all we could see was bone-chilling darkness. After most of an adult life in Japan we were attuned to the profound need for belonging and we understood what it was not to belong. It had not occurred to us that we would feel the worst sort of exclusion and disenfranchisement from American Christians. We learned the hard way that speaking against power, even the power of a Christian institution, would forever mark us as outsiders. The cost of belonging, the silent acquiescence we were so familiar with in Japan, we had presumed, wrongly, would not be a price required among the “non-idolatrous.” As I look back at the misogyny, the open financial corruption, the abuse of students and faculty, the price of being inside now appears obviously idolatrous. But it may be that it is only from the wilderness, which at first felt very punishing and lonely, that the reality of the flesh pots of Egypt are exposed. As we walked into the wilderness, we slowly discovered this beautiful community outside the gates. Continue reading “Dancing in the Wilderness”

The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy

Both Abraham and Sarah respond with laughter to their absurd plight.  Sarah laughs privately and Abraham “fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Gen. 17:17).  The absurd situation of being promised a child, though Sarah is barren and Abraham is so old he is as good as dead, is laughable as it is absurdly hopeful.  The laughter is not simply doubtful, though it encompasses doubt. It is, as one might say at the unforeseen but happy resolution of an impossible situation, “Unbelievable!” Their laughter is acknowledgement of the absurdity but it is not bound by mere impossibility or tragedy. The fact that they memorialize the laughter in naming the child Isaac (He Who Laughs) indicates this laughter is integral to their faith. Since Abraham, in Paul’s explanation, is the prototype of faith, this indicates our own faith is to be caught up in the same laughter. More than that, Isaac or He Who Laughs is a type of Christ, meaning that the divine and human are melded in laughter personified. Continue reading “The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy”

I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death

Total freedom and the possibility of total destruction are not simply global phenomena (the “free” possibility of ending organized civilization through nuclear warfare or global warming) but are conjoined in a “despairing” Subject. Progress toward attaining the self, whether it brings down the world or simply destroys what is, marks the present world order but also the despairing, fear bound Subjects emerging at the end of late modernity. This despair, in Søren Kierkegaard’s depiction of it, might be despair at not being conscious of having a self, or despair at not willing to be oneself, or despair at willing to be oneself, but all three reduce to the same predicament.[1] There is a disease of the spirit (the spirit of the age or the individual human spirit) a dividedness and fear in which unity is sought (becoming or attaining the self) in negation of the self. Kierkegaard calls it “the sickness unto death.” Continue reading “I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death”

Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche). Continue reading “Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul”

Should Christians Refrain from Going to Court in Cases Involving Other Christians?

Paul links three topics which, on the surface, may appear to have little in common: “going to the law” or taking someone to court (I Cor. 6:1-8), sexual immorality (6:9-11), and freedom and discipline (6:12-20). What these three topics share is a warning against manipulating or taking advantage of fellow Christians. In Corinth there is apparently an elitist group – those who count themselves “wise” and who have more economic and social standing and who are misusing their freedom in Christ.  These people, as seen most clearly in chapter 11, are taking advantage of their social standing. They are “grasping” sexually (some conclude they are using boy prostitutes), financially (attempting to make money by taking advantage of their Christian brothers and sisters), and even in their station in the church (pride of place in wisdom and position) they are “grasping” what is not theirs. The situation, where some in the church are taking others to court, may be an extension of the thematic problem; the wealthy and powerful taking advantage of the poor and weak. Continue reading “Should Christians Refrain from Going to Court in Cases Involving Other Christians?”

The Origin of Evil: The Perverse Personality

This week Christopher Watts was sentenced to three consecutive lifetimes in prison for the August murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. He explained that he had hoped to start a new life with his girlfriend. After strangling his wife and smothering his children, Watts
buried his wife, Shanann, in a shallow grave and put his daughters, Bella and Celeste, in containers of crude oil. The Washington Post reports that neither prosecutors nor the surviving relatives of Shanann, Bella and Celeste Watts who spoke at Monday’s hearing expected to ever understand how a seemingly normal person could annihilate his entire family. Watt’s parents, Cynthia and Ronnie Watts, could not believe their son had done such a thing but in light of his confession they asked only that Watts one day explain himself.   Continue reading “The Origin of Evil: The Perverse Personality”

The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine

Paul, in his depiction of the various stages or possibilities for the human subject (building on the Old Testament), depicts four primary ways of being human or four ways for ordering human subjectivity. The primary poles around which he arranges these four possibilities are desire, language, and death. Each of these elements are interrelated, as desire has to do primarily with lack (lack of being, mortality, death, finitude, sexuality) and language or the symbolic order (law, authority, culture, religion, etc.) is the medium through which desire is channeled in dealing with lack. Each of the primary poles is linked (not exclusively but primarily) to an embodied cognitive capacity so that the auditory, the spectral, or the sensuous, are either privileged or subordinated in the four subject positions. In turn, the emotional spectrum (which is inclusive of all three poles and is not simply “feeling”) can be ranged from the root negative emotion of shame (in which lack or death holds sway through the spectral and sensuous) to guilt (in which the symbolic dominates) to love (in which the punishing effect of the symbolic is suspended).  For Paul, it is not simply a matter of being a Christian, as he will locate Christians in several places along the spectrum, but he does trace a developmental progression. In this short piece, I will describe the first of Paul’s four subject positions: the masculine. Continue reading “The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine”

The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence

One of the key moments in Alexander Campbell’s break with Presbyterianism and denominationalism came when he returned his communion token, unused, to the coffers of the Presbyterians. The token, issued by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches, was a ticket of entry showing that the bearer had been duly tested and approved by the clergy to gain access to the Lord’s Table. The tokens were a form of “salvation currency” as the bearer was declared a bone fide Christian (to be denied a token was to lose access to body of Christ). The tokens became sacred objects, some even requested they be put in their coffins at death, and they were a means for clergy (who came to view them as their personal possession) to accumulate power and insure their own station. The system originated with John Calvin and spread to Protestant churches all over the world, including the U. S. The particular thing which may have plagued Campbell, as he purposely put himself at the end of a line of 800 some communicants, was that he realized that his new friends among the Scottish reformers would not qualify for the Lord’s table as they were not of the right party.[1] Continue reading “The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence”