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culture ethics philosophy politics technology

cultural enmity

In this post, I want to reflect on what I take to be one of the most serious and urgent issues in modern society: that of social division.

It seems that in the area of political discourse, we are getting poorer at relating to one another. I often feel that the internet in general and social media in particular has partially delivered on the promise to spread information and unite us, and majorly delivered on the outcome of spreading misinformation and dividing us. Aside from whatever unity that has resulted, the internet allows people to find other like-minded people who agree with them, who share the same admiration (or frustration) about the same people, and they reinforce one another by sharing their ideas, videos, articles, webpages, memes, etc.

Whenever there is engagement between the divided camps, too often it descends sooner or later (usually sooner) into cheap and easy labeling of the other. “You are such a ______.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, much too soon after the horrific violence of the Mosque shootings, the issue was weaponized into a way for those in opposing camps to blame the shootings on those on the other side. Righty folk had the nerve to suggest it was immigration’s fault. Lefty folk blamed and banned public figures who they don’t like. Both used the tragic events to demonstrate that they were right all along.

There are two reflections I have on all this. First of all, Jesus teaches us, not to never judge the other, but rather to do the hard work of judging ourselves first. In Matthew 7, we read that when we take the ‘log’ out of our eye, we will then see more clearly and be better able to take the ‘speck’ out of our neighbour’s eye. Political division will only grow as long as we focus only on how wrong we think the other side is.

Second, there is also another piece of wisdom that I think is relevant. It is not a biblical quote, but it is consonant with biblical wisdom, I suggest. It is the adage, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I think the relevance for our current divided sociopolitical situation is that we need to stop labeling those we disagree with and start listening to them. Labeling is a conversation stopper. “You’re only saying that because you are a… (‘snowflake’, ‘millennial’, ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobe’).” It is utterly dis-empowering for discourse.

When is it hardest to do this? When we have strong ideas. If we’re unsure of our opinion on something, we listen much better; but when we’re convinced, we sigh, groan, label, and unfriend when we encounter the other view.

People fear that giving too much time to an extreme or harmful idea will strengthen it. But I say that if we don’t listen to it and don’t offer respectful engagement and challenge to it, it will grow cancerous growth. When people feel that nobody will listen to them, they give up on trying and retreat into their like-minded enclaves. As has been said, we were told not to talk about religion or politics, but we should have been taught to talk respectfully and constructively about them. I believe that if we do this, it will help put the brakes on growing extremism and enmity.

Engaging patiently with views that you disagree with means at least a few things: not using labels, not presenting the other view in its worst form (called ‘straw-manning’) paying attention to your facial expression, tone of voice, and not interrupting the moment you hear something you disagree with. It means holding your own ideas for the time being (if they are good ideas, they aren’t going anywhere), and making sure you understand what the other person means. If you cannot describe the other person’s view in a form that they will recognize and agree with, then you will never be able to dialogue with them.

This all may sound very clear, but in my experience it is incredibly difficult. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

For many of us, it is a real jolt of self-righteous pleasure to make a good point in a debate or discussion. In this way, patient dialogue has a sacrificial character, in that we sacrifice our own pleasure of feeling smart or right, and instead conduct ourselves in a way that awards respect to the other person and gives them the pleasure of at least being heard.

To hear someone, to listen to them, to give their side a hearing, is not to agree with them. It is simply to seek to understand them. Here’s to us re-learning the art of listening. May we be given the courage we need to do so.

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christianity culture theology

lament with thanksgiving

Lament and thanksgiving are two entirely valid modes of prayer.

Both are biblical and practical.  Like God’s people in every time and place, it is a healthy practice to offer to God both our ‘why’ and our ‘thanks’.  In my survey of local Baptist worship in Aotearoa New Zealand, I considered the extent to which forms of prayer such as praise and thanksgiving were dominant, and found reason to believe that forms such as confession and lament were more rare.  In this post, I’m interested in reasons why lament in particular seems uncommon, and whether or not there might be a symbiotic relationship between lament and thanksgiving.

I think the main reasons for less (or no) lament in public worship are emotional and theological in nature.  Emotionally, it really is a bit of a drag and doesn’t really (at least on the surface) prepare people to go out in confident mission to the world.  Theologically, some may feel that such prayers reflect a lack of gratitude or trust.

I get it.  It’s not enjoyable, and it can seem to clash with gratitude.  I certainly think it would be inappropriate for a service to have too much lament.  But what if lament and thanksgiving go together more than we realize?

I propose the following: When Christians gather for worship, a mixture of lament and thanksgiving is a healthy middle between two extremes.  At one extreme, when there is too much lament and not enough thanksgiving, the service feels less like worship and more like a grumbling session.  This kind of worship succeeds in justifying our resentment and anger when things don’t go our way, and fails to transform our boredom into joy.  At the other extreme, when there is only thanksgiving, free of lament, the service can feel a bit shallow and inauthentic.  This kind of worship fails to appreciate that every day is full of events which even God laments, and for which lament is the proper response, and succeeds in presenting Christianity as a faith which is out of touch with reality.

So then.  Lament? Yes.  And then give thanks.

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bible christianity culture general philosophy science theology

possibility and surrender

I met a friendly man today who, learning of my religiosity, asked me about my views on science and faith.  It was a good chat, not too long, and remained wonderfully amicable.

The man was, by global and local standards, wealthy, educated and articulate.  At least some of the time, such a demographic can tend to view the ‘God’ topic primarily as an interest, a curiosity; certainly not a matter of life and death.

During the conversation, I remember thinking, “Oh wow, the science-and-faith conversation.  Is this still a popular topic for people?  Usually it’s hell or homosexuality.”  I have no idea of his intentions, but very often many Christians feel like such conversations have little if anything to do with someone’s genuine interest in (or pursuit of) faith, and everything to do with some kind of justification of their unbelief.  The theological out-clauses are many: global suffering and evil, hypocrisy in the church, science and/or evolution, hell, homosexuality, ‘the Old Testament’, etc.

This leads me to another thought, which emerged from my reflections.  It is the reality that if an ultimate invisible and limitless being is real, then that kind of opens up literally anything and everything as being possible.  A ‘god’ could be very controlling and hands-on, more distant and deistic, or somewhere in the middle; evil, good, impatient, patient.  If people just start believing in ‘god’ willy nilly, well they might start believing just about anything about that ‘god’.  This ‘god’ might send 99.9999% of humans to hell, gays first of course, and save only the members of Westboro Baptist Church.  Or this ‘god’ might be the mamby pamby, everything-and-everyone-is-great, domesticated, flaccid (and frankly boring) deity… Anything is possible if there is a ‘god’!

The truth behind all this is precisely this: Yes, you and I don’t get to say what God is like.  God may have attributes we don’t find pleasant or popular in our time and culture.

This is where a little notion called surrender comes in.  This is where we stop trying to be more moral than God.  This is where we let go of all our controlling questions and submit to the reality of an Ultimate being, far stronger and higher than us.

The good news, literally, is that in the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to wonder – or fear! – what God might be like.  We have a Creator and Saviour who is radically committed to the creation, humans in particular.  So much so that this God is long-suffering and hell-bent on saving us, despite our almost continual rejection, rebellion, apathy and downright selfishness.

Anything is possible with God; and what a good possibility it is with the God we know through Jesus Christ.

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bible christianity culture ethics theology

world + flesh + devil

The world, the flesh and the devil.

These three entities have been said to be the three sources of sin and temptation for Christians.  That is to say that when we get it wrong, we can point to the influential lure of culture (the world), the weakness of natural desire (the flesh), and the overarching conspiracy of evil (the devil).

I say ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ because I don’t see these three as mutually exclusive.  When a person does something wrong – let’s say: gossip at work – they can point to a) the culture of gossip at their work or in the ‘world’ generally, b) their own tendencies to want to stay ‘in the know’ about what’s going around the workplace, and c) a trans-historic, trans-cultural, quasi-personal gravity gently and subtly pulling people away from healthy and honest communication.

If we neatly point to just one of these three, we open the door to a) victim-hood (“Poor me, it’s so hard to be good in this world/workplace…”), b) shame (“Why am I such a horrible gossip?”) or c) blame (“It was an outright spiritual attack…”).

Acknowledging all three can help us to appreciate afresh the need to stand apart from culture (Romans 12:1-2), the need to acknowledge our culpability for our actions (1 John 1:9), and to be on guard against the old serpent up to its typical schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).

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christianity culture ethics theology

good fear, guilt and shame

There are obvious reasons why fear, guilt and shame have a bad reputation inside and outside the Church.  There is really no need to illustrate this point, but…

Fear of judgment, rejection or punishment can be crippling.

Guilt that is exaggerated, overly-negative or simply mistaken is paralyzing.

Shame, too, when it is insulting, degrading and merciless, can be dehumanizing.

But that’s just simply not all there is to Fear, Guilt and Shame.  They can be not only unavoidable feelings that one will eventually encounter in life, but even helpful and self-protective tools to help us grow.

Fear can be protective.  It can keep us from doing things that we know will harm others or ourselves.  The opposite of this protective fear is selfish carelessness.

Guilt can be honest.  It can reflect the willingness to admit we have done wrong and the need to set things right.  The opposite of this honest guilt is the excusing or hiding sin.

Shame can be empathetic.  It can connect our logical awareness of wrong-doing to a heart-level grief that together can motivate (through God’s grace) our work to amend our ways and undo the harm done as much as possible.  The opposite of this empathetic shame is a calloused, arrogant or narcissistic heart.

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bible christianity culture ethics politics theology

political Christianity

Let me open with an if/then statement.  If Christianity is anything more than B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), and I heartily believe it is, then it necessarily has to do with how the wholeness of life is played out in the here and now.  This means Christianity necessarily has a political component to it.  And here’s a yes/but statement.  Yes, there is vastly more to Christianity than politics, but it is not apolitical.

The sweeping Story of Scripture presents a Gospel that cannot be contained by any single political party, even a ‘Christian’ political party.  Indeed, the values and imperatives of Scripture cover pretty much the entire political spectrum.

The ‘right’ end of the spectrum will find its emphasis on personal responsibility affirmed and strengthened by Scripture.  Consider Proverbs 6:6-11 as motivation to as right-wing folk will say, “get off your rear and work as much as you can, and stop relying on the government.”

The left end of the political spectrum, with its convictions about basic rights and freedoms, will find just as much support from Scripture; from the golden rule of treating your neighbour as yourself, through to the more sharp and radical command to love your enemies.  Everything from social welfare, ecological preservation and non-violent pacifism have direct links to Scripture.

Even a controversial issue such as same-gender relationships finds the whole spectrum covered by Scripture.  Conservatives will find their convictions about sex, marriage and gender affirmed by passages which echo through in both the Old and New Testaments.  Progressives will find abundant biblical support for their passionate concern for the protection of the person-hood and identity of all regardless of any of their personal characteristics.

In addition to offering support all along the political spectrum, Scripture also offers subversion and opposition at all points as well.  To the arrogant ‘conservatives’ wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus the ‘liberal’ steps in to defend her basic freedoms with non-condemning, patient love, whilst at the same time pointing a stinging finger at the hypocrisy of those who are more interested in shaming someone else for their sin than they are at humbly acknowledging their own.  To any and all at the progressive ‘left’ who slide into complacent and compromised affirmation of things that go against Scripture, Jesus represents someone who held to the authority of Scripture, even as he sought to direct people past erring traditional interpretations of it.  Jesus was not interested in building a theocracy to manipulate people into obedience, nor was there any ‘moving on’ from fundamental Jewish convictions to make the faith palatable.

In other words, the Gospel of Scripture is always big enough to offer both comfort and challenge to everyone.

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culture ethics

shame and suicide

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the recent loss of loved television presenter Greg Boyed has raised again the topic of depression and suicide.  Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” has high suicide rates, particularly for teens aged 15-19, where it is the highest.  Too many of us have loved ones that have brought this issue directly into our lives.  It is an urgent topic and healthy and honest thinking is therefore urgently needed.

I don’t think there is one single emotion or social dynamic at work behind suicide.  A unifying theme however, is quite simply the feeling – which can swell up fiercely and quickly – of wanting to be free of whatever toxic cocktail of pain one is facing.  I want to focus here on one type of pain, the pain of shame.

Many who take their own lives will have been overcome by shame.  Whether the shame is connected to past or recent behaviour or a sense of not measuring up personally to a perceived standard of personal worth, the sad reality is that too many people respond to shame by isolating and withdrawing from others.  Tragically, suicidal feelings themselves may be accompanied by shame, thus making it even harder to seek help and community.

I’ve been thinking about shame recently.  In summary, I think it is often treated simplistically.  Shame = bad.  I get the logic behind this.  But could it be that shame (and pain in general) is simply an unavoidable part of navigating life?  I’d even go so far as to say that there are times where we want people to feel shame for what they have done.  Just as healthy guilt (as opposed to unhealthy guilt) helps us recognize in our minds that we need to take responsibility for our actions, so also helpful shame (as opposed to harmful shame) happens when we not only think about the wrong we’ve done, but actually feel remorseful about it.  Healthy guilt plus empathy equals helpful shame.

What on earth does this have to do with suicide?  Well, I guess I’m wondering if one way to reduce unhelpful shame related to suicide and depression is to recognize and appreciate the role that shame can have as a normal, everyday and even healthy emotion.  This, I think, is what is intended by the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK.”  If there is no such thing as being “not OK”, if everything and everyone is expected to be in a constant state of “everything is awesome” then there is no more shame-inducing thing than the everyday reality of not feeling OK.

If we can reclaim that it is OK to feel shame, then maybe a few more people will feel less ashamed of their shame, their guilt, their suicidal feelings, and will maybe, just maybe, take steps toward, rather than away from, the help, support, and community that we all need.

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culture ethics general

why so angry

I know almost nothing about the two speakers booked-for-but-now-banned-from the Powerstation in Auckland.  What I do know is that a lot of people are angry about them, their message (whatever it is), and the prospect of them having a platform to share it.

All this anger actually piques my curiosity.  It makes me want to find them on YouTube and learn what they are about.  It doesn’t make me want to ignore them.  I wonder if the angry protesters realize this?

Agree with them or not, if you resist them with too violent of language (or venue-cancelling maneuvering?) you will make a victim out of them and effectively help create a platform for them.

Another thought is this.  My Dad always told me that in an argument, the one getting angry usually has the weaker position.  If these banned speakers have such bad ideas, shouldn’t it be easy to calmly (and succinctly) show where their logic goes astray?  The anger just makes you look defensive.

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culture ethics politics theology

moral fear

Ethical discourse, I suggest, is degraded and corrupted by fear.  I’m not talking about the healthy protective fear that flows from love, but rather the unhelpful power-grasping fear that is its own source.  Below I’ll suggest two equal-opposite examples of this power-grasping fear, and then I’ll offer a suggestion about a third, ‘middle’ way.

On the one hand, we can see a fearful response to ‘misbehaviour’.  This kind of fear is reactive, and wants to (at best) guide or (at worst) control human behaviour.  It often takes the form of wanting to ‘raise’ ethical standards, or perhaps turn back the clock to prior times where standards were ‘higher’.  The logic seems to be along the lines of:

  • People misbehave
  • People misbehave because they don’t know what is good behaviour, and/or cultural moral standards are too permissive
  • Therefore, to improve behaviour, more moral instruction and/or more strict morals is needed

On the other hand, there seems to be a fearful response, not to misbehaviour, but to the effects of perceived misbehaviour.  This, too, is a reactive fear, and wants to protect people from (at best) false guilt or (at worst) any guilt.  It often takes the form of ‘updating’ or loosening ethical standards.  The logic seems to be something like:

  • People harm themselves and others
  • People harm themselves and others because they feel acute moral guilt
  • Therefore, people will harm themselves and others less if we loosen ethical views that are too outdated and/or strict

The point here is not to say that morals never need to be adjusted in either direction.  Arguably, they can be unhelpfully permissive or unhelpfully strict.  The point has to do with the way that fear plays a role, both in the desire to make morals, ethics, and laws, more strict, or less strict.

As suggested above, fear can be helpful.  Among other things, we should have a healthy fear of false guilt. Auckland-based theologian Neil Darragh calls this ‘disabling guilt’, signalling the way that victims of it are disabled from feeling and acting and being as they should.  But this false guilt is flanked by what he calls ‘enabling guilt’, which – contrary to what we often hear – is actually helpful in that it assists us to face our wrongdoing, take responsibility for it, and amend our behaviour and grow morally and personally.

The problem with the two types of reactive fear above is that they tend to short-circuit moral discourse and reflection.  Fear cements people, cornering them into angry and aggressive (or passive-aggressive and condescending) dismissal of those they disagree with.

Patient discussion is better.  People may not instantly agree when it comes to a particular activity and whether or not feeling guilty about it is enabling or disabling.  But at least they might be able to understand one another.

Categories
christianity culture ethics philosophy politics theology

ordinary sin

The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin.  I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.

Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle).  Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it.  Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.

The extreme of “totally evil” 

At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.

The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept.  All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level.   Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’.  Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture.  A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’.  The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature.  There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil.  The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’.   And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.

The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity.  In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature.  And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.

The extreme of “basically good”

This leads to the positive “basically good” view.  In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative.  Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.  In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature.  Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection.  So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.

The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect.  It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us.  After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves.  Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!

And here we see the weakness of this view.  At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life.   It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do.  And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.

It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa.  What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.

The Doctrine of Sin

It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory.  But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth.  Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).  To be a human is a glorious thing.  But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).

The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin.  Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”.  That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest.  Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.”  I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”.  We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve.  We steal and cheat.  We parade our acts of charity on social media.  We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after.  Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.

The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin.  So we are sinful.  So what?  Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness.  The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply.  Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact.  But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.”  This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.