THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART III: EXAMPLES OF DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN DIVINE & HUMAN SUBJECTS
We will now consider several biblical passages in light of the dual-subject approach to Scripture. In Psalm 137:8-9, an exilic or post-exilic author writes: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” We must ask whether this text reveals to us theological source material that we may to develop a doctrine of God’s severity in paying back evildoers, or if it reveals anthropological source material in which we primarily see the human desire for brutal retributive justice (if not merely revenge)?
This passage in particular was what stimulated Witherington’s observation that Scripture may “be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character,” in that, we must consider how this text “comports with the idea of a God who loves all humankind and is especially concerned for the weak, the vulnerable, and the young.” (Living Word, 24) Witherington’s thought process hints at a hermeneutical key we will explore subsequently, but we may for now say that there is evidence to suggest that the divinely inspired author of Psalm 137 was revealing human nature to us rather than depicting God’s attributes.
Dealing with this passage in terms of anthropological source material, we must then ask whether it represents a revelation of positive human character that God is commending, or whether it is a negative attribute that is merely being accurately recorded. To determine where this passage falls, we could see if the author had cited God’s approval of this desire for revenge; if so, then we may consider this a model of human behavior that God finds acceptable. However, we do not see this, so without this divine endorsement, we must remain ambiguous toward the text: it may be a legitimate human response to evil, or it may represent an attitude that is contrary to God’s will for humanity. Overall, we can say that God certainly allows humans to express their feelings of anger, even in the extreme. Also, this text reveals to us historical background on the plight of the Jews in exile—their experience must have been incredibly dreadful to elicit such a monstrous response.
Let us consider another example, from Psalm 13, which evinces a more specific claim about God that we must discern as being either theologically absolute or an example of human experience. The author, presumably David, cries out, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1). Do we see this as theological source material from which we can develop a theology of God’s “hiddenness”—was David correct in asserting that God was hiding from him? Had God indeed forgotten him, not literally, but relationally? Or does this reveal an anthropological picture of David’s experience of feeling like God was hiding from him and that God had forgotten about him?
There is more ambiguity here, due to the fact that many Christian thinkers (e.g. Luther, St. John of the Cross) see evidence for a theology of God’s hiddenness in the pages of Scripture. While we cannot rule this out as being true of God, it does seem obvious that the passage is primarily speaking of David’s experience of feeling and thinking particular emotions and thoughts, so it would be safe to say this reveals more about the human subject than the divine.
We may wonder, then, if Psalm 13 is actually more about an experience of human perception than divine actuality, could we say the same about Psalm 139, where David makes claims that have been used to support a number of theological doctrines: God’s omniscience (“Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” v. 4), omnipresence (“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” v.7), and human predestination (“In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed” v. 16). Could all of these examples reveal David’s human sense of God’s intimate involvement in his life without necessarily being absolutely true of God’s being or plans?
One could ask the rather blunt question of David: how exactly do you know all of these things? What access do you have to God’s mind to comment upon what he knows? Have you been to heaven or Sheol, or have you seen God’s book in which your days are numbered? We can logically assume that none of these questions could be answered positively to support David’s assertions and yet we also find no evidence that David has actually been told these things by God, as we see in other parts of Scripture where it is claimed that “the Word of the LORD” came upon an author. This is an argument from silence going in both directions—we don’t know whether God revealed these things to David or not, though they do seem in line with other theological claims we see in Scripture. Ultimately, there is tension, particularly in a genre like lyrical poetry, between being able to clearly discern what is reliable theological source material and what are examples of human experience (such as doubt, fear, or anger) that contribute to an inspired and accurate anthropology.
We could also look beyond claims or statements in poetical works to accounts and narratives in Scripture in order to raise questions of whether the Bible is telling us about humanity or God. For instance, when Noah curses Canaan to become “lowest of slaves” to his brothers in Genesis 9:25, do we take it to be the case that God approves of this curse, which was later used to promote racism and the practice of enslaving Africans (who were purported to be the sons of Ham)? It is interesting to note from the text that Noah does ask God to bless Shem and Japheth and make Canaan their slaves (Gen. 9:26-27)—but we do not see evidence of whether God endorses Noah’s curse or not.
From a human perspective, we can see that Noah is angry, embarrassed, and struggling with a hangover—it would be natural for him to lash out at his son, as many of us would do in this situation. We must not assume that merely because God commends a biblical actor at some points in the Bible that it means everything they do subsequent to that time is approved by God. Noah’s reaction may clearly serve as anthropological source material, but to put a divine stamp of approval upon this curse is not necessarily justified from the text. So why should we allow critics to place the blame of Christian use of this verse to support racism on God (even though the identification of blacks with the sons of Ham is nowhere in the text as well)? Noah spoke the curse and we have no reason of which I am aware to believe God fulfilled it. This stands in contrast with God’s specific promise to Abram to “bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).
[In Part IV, we will consider the problem of discerning between the two subjects in biblical interpretation.]
THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART II: THE NEED FOR REVELATION ABOUT HUMANITY TO HUMANITY
[Part I available here]
Before delving into the issue of how we may make distinctions between claims about the divine and human subjects of Scripture, we must address the question of why we would need to have revelation about humanity, particularly since part of the intrinsic concept of revelation is that it is “the disclosure of what was previously unknown.” (Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, 1031) It is obvious that we need God to reveal himself to us because he is outside of our common experience, his nature and being are not evident to us, and as YHWH himself says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is. 55:8). In contrast, we have a great deal of understanding about humanity: we ourselves are humans, we see evidence and examples of humanity all around us, and we have created our own reflections on the human race in philosophy, history, and cultural artifacts. So why would we need for God to write down an inspired account of humanity for us in the Scriptures?
First, we tend to lie to ourselves about ourselves. The prophet Jeremiah declares, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). The apostle Paul asserts that in our human wickedness, we have suppressed the truth, become futile in our thinking, and our minds were darkened (Romans 1:18-21). Though Paul specifically refers in this passage to deceiving ourselves about God’s person, it seems reasonable to believe we do the same with our own self-knowledge (cf. 1 John 1:8). We need revelation about the human subject because we need God to show us hard truths about ourselves that we are often unwilling to acknowledge.
Second, revealing the truth about humanity, particularly our sinfulness and inability to fully obey his commands, ultimately exposes our deep need for the Gospel and for holistic transformation. In this light, an accurate anthropology both plays a part in the overall biblical story of redemption, as well as offering an unvarnished portrait of fallen humanity to which we can relate (for we do not only see examples in Scripture of perfectly holy people who do not make the same errors to which we seem prone). This reason for revelation about humanity would explain the presence of lies, wickedness, and bad theology cited in our introduction.
Third, and more positively, disclosing the truth about humanity reveals occasions where persons do respond in faith and obedience, which we may imitate, as well as many other instances where God still chooses to use and bless people who are living contrary to his desires, which demonstrates his love, patience, and grace toward his creation.
All of these reasons make the inclusion of humanity as a subject of revelation a somewhat non-controversial addition to our understanding of Scripture. What is more problematic, and likely more unsettling for the conservative, is the question of how to distinguish which parts of special revelation are about God and which are about humanity in the biblical texts. The difficulty of parsing between theological claims in Scripture that reflect humanity’s perspective on God (such as Job’s friends) and those that accurately reflect Divine truth becomes a daunting proposition. Indeed I. Howard Marshall despairs at the attempt:
The books of the Bible contain what are clearly regarded as the words of human actors telling about human actors and on occasion reporting what people said to God. They also contain what are identified as the words of God [including divine communication to humans and prophetic announcements]. In many cases it would be hard to decide just where God stopped speaking and the human author took over—and indeed meaningless and futile to try to do so. How could one distinguish between the more personal expressions of Paul’s emotions and his more direct statements of what he believed to be divine revelation? (Biblical Inspiration, 21)
This reticence on Marshall’s part may be due to his feeling that if one begins to identify human aspects in Scripture, then the “inspired” notion of the Bible becomes unintelligibly bifurcated into some parts human and some parts divine. Clark Pinnock is more comfortable with dividing Scripture into levels of revelation: “In the so-called ‘Writings’ of the Hebrew Bible…there are far fewer claims of divine revelation [than in prophetic works], only occasional references at best.” Pinnock goes on to assert that “in the Old Testament collection there are different kinds of literature, some that make a powerful claim to divine origin and others that do not, some that stand on the high ground of revelation and others that occupy a little lower position.” (The Scripture Principle, 62)
While Marshall is reluctant to potentially split the inspiration in Scripture, Pinnock is willing to sort between “kinds and degrees of inspiration” (64) in biblical revelation; however, the approach I am proposing contends that indeed all of Scripture remains inspired, it simply reveals inspired truth about different subjects. What we must distinguish is between the Divine or human subjects of revelation and not whether the things written in Scripture are fallible human statements or inerrant divinely inspired words of God through human authors. We cannot limit ourselves to Donald Bloesch’s approving citation of the notion of a biblical “double truth” that must be held when he says, “the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and the human writers’ inspired testimony about God.” (Holy Scripture, 67) We must instead say that the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and humanity, and the human writer’s inspired testimony about God and their fellow humans.
In a simple example of distinguishing between the two, we can clearly tell that the fool who says “There is no God” in Psalm 14:1 is an instance where a human perspective of bad theology is accurately and truthfully revealed in the biblical text, thereby evidencing that humanity is the subject of this portion of revelation. However, when Moses says, “Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” in Deuteronomy 6:4, we may be sure that it is not Moses’ human opinion that is evident, but rather an instance of an inspired truth claim regarding the Divine subject. We trust that Scripture provides us with some tools to distinguish between a fool and a prophet of YHWH. Unfortunately, it is not always as easy to distinguish as in these two examples! Indeed, we must face a greater deal of the complexity in the hermeneutical enterprise this position advocates, which we will do in Part III by looking to several passages from the Psalms.
THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART I: TOWARDS A DUAL-SUBJECT APPROACH TO BIBLICAL REVELATION
Here is a trustworthy statement, worthy of full acceptance: The Bible is filled with lies, wickedness, and bad theology. [Pause] Now before you begin gathering wood to burn me as a heretic, it must be said that this sentence is an accurate assertion that any signer of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” could affirm. Of course, there is some equivocation in the phrasing: I should say, “the Bible is filled with examples of lies, wickedness, and erroneous theology.”
We see lies in Scripture, accurately recounted, from the beginning until the end: in Genesis alone we see deception in the words of the serpent in the Garden, as well as from the mouths of Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Potiphar’s wife, Joseph, and many more. Examples of wickedness in Scripture include murder, brutality, rape, gang rape, incest, incestuous rape, and attempted genocide. We may also find many examples of bad theology in the form of worship of idols (sometimes led by Israel’s leaders, such as Aaron in Ex. 32:4-5), false prophecies from those who claim to be true prophets of YHWH, and even the claim in Psalm 14:1 that “there is no God” (don’t worry, we’ll qualify this later).
The existence of these elements in the Bible is unquestionable; however, the purpose they serve in the text may sometimes perplex the thoughtful reader, particularly when one considers the classic concept of Scripture as “revelation.” Most Christian definitions of “revelation” look similar to what we find in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: “the term is used primarily of God’s communication to humans of divine truth, that is, his manifestation of himself or his will.”
The question then is how do examples of lies, wickedness, and bad theology serve to reveal a “manifestation” of God or his will to us? How does the presence of these disturbing aspects in the written “Word of God” act as divine self-disclosure? In order to answer that question, I would like to argue that the Bible actually has two subjects of its revelation: God and humanity (see footnote 1 below). To use an analogy, Scripture acts as a mirror and telescope: it is a mirror that accurately depicts and evaluates the human condition; and it is also a telescope, revealing the transcendent, eternally “other” Divine Being. And ultimately, Christ serves as the mirror in the telescope, perfectly imaging near to us the fullness of God in heaven.
While many treatises on revelation focus primarily on the Divine subject, there are some theologians who have noted the significance of the divinely inspired revelation of the human subject in Scripture. Ben Witherington poses the idea that “maybe the Bible is meant to be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character, and how the two do and should interact.” (Living Word, 24) Although this is more of an aside for Witherington, his comments touch upon the need for students of Scripture to reconsider what it is exactly that we see the inspired Word as revealing to us: only God’s nature, or humanity’s as well.
I believe that we need to make more of Witherington’s conjecture that the Bible is indeed “as much” about humanity as it is about God, for the simple reason that as we consider the whole of Scripture, we see that large sections, particularly in the historical works and poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures, focus much more on revealing humanity than divinity. For instance, God tells Job’s friends that “they have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7); does this then cast much of this book’s contents into theological suspicion? Being that the reader has seen what caused Job’s suffering in the prologue, we know at the very least that their accusations against Job are faulty—what about their theological ideas? Could it be that Job’s friends serve as examples of bad theology, but they speak in ways which still accurately reveal authentic human perspectives? This example suggests that we must distinguish in Scripture between theological source material (what we can say about God) and anthropological source material (how we see human beliefs and experiences depicted). Furthermore, we must differentiate accurate theological ideas from erroneous ones (i.e. persons may say something about God in Scripture, but it does not mean it is true), as well as between accurate or positive anthropological material (including those Biblical figures we should emulate) and false ideas about or negative examples of humanity. (Footnote 2)
[In Part II, we will explore why it is that humans would need revelation about…humans.]
- Of course there are more subjects in Scripture, such as animal and plant life, the cosmos, angelic beings, etc. but God and humanity are clearly the primary subjects of revelation
- It must be said that the Bible exists as more than informational “source material;” it also “performs” God’s covenantal actions (as Kevin VanHoozer has suggested) as well as transforming us into people who are “on mission” with God to heal and redeem the whole creation (as N.T. Wright has proposed).
See PART IV for Works Cited
First they came for the Jesus People, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jesus Person.
Then they came for the seeker-sensitive church, and I did not speak out—because I was seeker-insensitive.
Then they came for the emergents…or emerging, or whatever you call them, and I did not speak out—because I was not emergent/ing.
Then they came for the Hipster Christians and I was all “AW HELL NO BEEYATCHS!” in the most ironic tone possible.
SO, it has become impossible to ignore the phenomenon of “Hipster Christianity” that is sweeping through evangelicalism these days (blazing from the cover of my newest Christianity Today). Or should I say the COMMENTARY on “Hipster Christianity” (I’m going to keep using those ironic quote marks because I think it is such a ridiculous term, I don’t want to give it the pleasure of legitimacy in the realm of English idioms).
A while back, an acquaintance sent me a Facebook invite to become a “fan” of a page that “he thought I’d like”: “Hipster Christianity.” I was like, wha? I checked it out. There was a link therein to a “quiz” that would tell you if you were a “Christian Hipster.” I clicked on said link, visited linked website which included these photo shoots of types of “Christian Hipsters” and questions about which kind of books or films I liked, then saw that this was all a quasi-interactive marketing scheme for a book called “Hipster Christianity” and I got THE HELL out of there.
What kind of queer (in the classical sense, my dear gay friends) Christian publishing house marketing person came up with this idea? “See if you’re ‘hip’—ironically laugh at the stereotypes—ponder the connection between faith and culture in your own disaffected and detached way—now go buy the effing book you little shit.” If anyone had the slightest inclination to consider themselves “hip” wouldn’t they know that aligning yourself with something that identifies you as such (using a word that has scarcely BEEN “hip” since 1965) is the first sign that you have lost all possibility of truly being that very thing? So basically they are trying to appeal to people who are either poseurs or those who cannot stand “Christian hipsters”? I can only assume it was the former…(Which, of course, is not the reason which I MYSELF left the website—I simply cannot stand Christian marketing…of anything.)
So I did not become a fan of aforementioned FB page or aforereferenced book. My reasoning was that I thought the book was playing to the movement of those who would want to become known as “Christian Hipsters.” However, I later came across the book & decided to scan over the beginning, just to see how ridiculous it was. Turns out, the book is kind of a CRITIQUE of this movement (is it really a movement? Maybe a style, a flavor, an expression of some part of a movement?). Anywho, a central question in the “introduction” (lower case “i” in the book) was “whether or not Christianity can be, should be, or is, in fact, cool.” The author claims that his book is “not an advertisement or rallying cry for ‘hip Christianity’ (my quotes, not his), nor is it an outright chastisement. It’s a critical analysis. It’s about the contradictions inherent in the phenomenon of Christian cool and the questions Christians should be asking of themselves if they find themselves within this milieu.”
Before I rip a hole in this idea of “contradictions” between “Christian” and “cool,” we need to zero in on one little word, not central to his claim, but which undoes any credibility to his forthcoming argument: “milieu.” WHO USES THIS WORD outside of a grad-school thesis? I mean, I read that and I’m thinking “Ahem, is the milieu you mention au courant vis-a-vis the locus of a bête-noire or an enfant terrible?” Oops, I missed one pretentious term, but he picks it up a few lines later: “it’s en vogue for Christians to hate on Christianity in all of its mainstream forms.” (I’m sorry, is it outre to hate on the use of ostentatious language?) Maybe that’s the way he talks, maybe it just popped out from Thesaurus.com the day he was writing (at “a table,” he somberly notes, “in the dining room of the Kilns—the home of C.S. Lewis.” This is relevant…apropos of what?). I’m sorry, but all of this is adding up to a sorry picture of our tour guide through the world of “Hipster Christianity.” And this “authorial tone” is part of the thing that cuts the legs off of the central argument I see here against Christians who are “cool” (though I must say I AM glad he is not advocating the sense I first got from his book’s website).
He says that this whole phenomenon “boils down to one simple desire: the desire to make Christianity cool.” But his definition of “cool” seems to reveal more about his own social experience of cool than what anyone else may take the term to mean: he writes, “Cool = an attractive attribute that embodies the existential strains to be independent, enviable, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.” Hmm, except for the words “attractive” and “enviable” this definition could fit the Unabomber. These two words then reveal that it’s all about what other people think. The whole enterprise of “Hipster Christianity,” from this book’s perspective, feels like it’s about those who are trying to “one up” other people, to be in on something before anyone else is, to have people notice you, etc. and making their faith “cool” is part of this process. Bro, these are SCENESTERS! They’re followers of whatever is elusive (wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m so indie, I’m into music even I haven’t heard of yet.”). He even comes out and says that “cool is basically a perception of others—it can’t exist as anything intrinsic or detached from public perception.” SAYS YOU!
I would argue that coolness is something like a combination of good taste, non-conformity and self-possession—it doesn’t matter if people think you have good taste or not (do YOU know why you like it?), or whether you are not-conforming to something which the majority of people reject or approve (you’re simply not willing to follow a trend just because others are—you think for yourself), and you don’t get flustered by others judgments or assessments of you (e.g. “I still like Coldplay…I don’t care if you think they’re corporate label Radiohead rip-offs”). Was Jesus cool in this sense? Absolutely. Can Christians be cool? Yeppers. So can atheists, Sufi Muslims, Trekkies, sportos and motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads.
The metaphors for “cool” this book uses feel so off to me as to be referencing the opposite of what it claims–those who are so caught up in TRYING to be cool that there’s no way they could actually BE COOL: “ahead of the pack,” “the road less travelled,” “survival of the hippest,” “the pursuit of individuality,” “affirmation through attention.” In the author’s mind (and perhaps, experience), cool is a social phenomenon. You’re not cool unless other people think you are cool and you have to struggle somehow to maintain cool or you could possibly become uncool. And this is one of his central objections to “Hipster Christianity,” that somehow Christians are going to try so hard to be cool that they are going to eventually align Christianity with the pursuit of cool or get stuck in some old “trend” (“HIP” PASTOR: “Hey micro-brewery night on Sunday!” POST-“HIPSTER CHRISTIAN”: “Micro-brews are so 2 months ago, I’m bailing on this whole Christianity thing”).
Man, if we need a book called “Hipster Christianity” then we also need some social analysis and critique of “Dork Christianity” or “Lemming Christianity” or “Sentimental Christianity” or any other number of phenomena that you can see in the church today. Turning the microscope on guys with lumberjack beards isn’t really that insightful if they are just cut from the same old imitative cloth that every other era of Christianity has had—just write about people who have no internal sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful. But it’s making my boy Elijah and I and people whom we truly consider “cool” look bad cause we DO like Sufjan and N.T. Wright and Wes Anderson and all of the things associated with these trend-stalking scenesters. To be honest, I want to make a t-shirt that says, “If you have to write a book, you wouldn’t understand.”
All this to say, I suppose, that while this author’s critique may fit some bills, I’d prefer if he didn’t label my friends and I according to his little scheme, photo shoots & quizzes.
One last thing: I remembered seeing an association of “hipster” with “Christian” in the liner notes of a Belle & Sebastian album from 2000 (a tell-tale sign of my “hipness”)…I reproduce it here as a more positive association of these terms:
Another update: My friend, Matt Barber, pointed me to a review of “Hipster Christianity” by philosopher James K.A. Smith that is along the lines of what I’ve pointed out above, except that it is a well-formed argument, written by a prolific published author, and doesn’t sound quite as bitchy.
Though this piece lacks some of the sublime subtlety that the Onion has evidenced in the past, I do love the counter-karmic force their “article” on the average American’s opinion regarding the NYC ‘mosque’ controversy may produce. For instance, the “We’ve Got to Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero” video is just beyond evil…(Joseph Goebbels is cracking a little smile in whatever worm-ridden corner of hell he’s rotting in). Here’s the beginning of the Onion piece (full article here):
Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims
SALINA, KS—Local man Scott Gentries told reporters Wednesday that his deliberately limited grasp of Islamic history and culture was still more than sufficient to shape his views of the entire Muslim world.
Gentries, 48, said he had absolutely no interest in exposing himself to further knowledge of Islamic civilization or putting his sweeping opinions into a broader context of any kind, and confirmed he was “perfectly happy” to make a handful of emotionally charged words the basis of his mistrust toward all members of the world’s second-largest religion.
“I learned all that really matters about the Muslim faith on 9/11,” Gentries said in reference to the terrorist attacks on the United States undertaken by 19 of Islam’s approximately 1.6 billion practitioners. “What more do I need to know to stigmatize Muslims everywhere as inherently violent radicals?”
“And now they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero,” continued Gentries, eliminating any distinction between the 9/11 hijackers and Muslims in general. “No, I won’t examine the accuracy of that statement, but yes, I will allow myself to be outraged by it and use it as evidence of these people’s universal callousness toward Americans who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers fell.”
“Even though I am not one of those people,” he added.
When told that the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” is actually a community center two blocks north of the site that would include, in addition to a public prayer space, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant, and athletic facilities, Gentries shook his head and said, “I know all I’m going to let myself know.”
Counter-point (to my own post):
Would everyone be cool with an “International Center for Political Cartoonists Who Depict Mohammed” going up next door to the mosque? What’s good for the goose, eh?
An article by the Rev Dr Ian Bradley published in The Times today calls upon liberal theology to take back popular Christianity from the Fundamentalists. The article ran full-circle for me: Bradley, who happens to be associate minister at the church I am a member of, makes mention of the 1910 launch of The Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets published by the founders of my alma mater, Biola University (called the Bible Institute of Los Angeles at the time).
Bradley writes of what would become the Fundamentalist position:
… advocating the literal authority and inerrancy of the Bible, creationism as against evolution and penal substitutionary atonement – the idea that Jesus was punished in place of sinners to satisfy God.
Bradley urges the Church to ‘escape from the shackles of this modern fundamentalism’. In trinitarian terms he advocates what he calls ‘a new reclaimed liberal theology’ based upon an acronym central to his thinking (and the title of his new book): GOOD = Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity. By grace Bradley means ‘overflowing mercy, love and forgiveness’, which he attributes particularly to God the Father. Order is particularly attributed to God the Son, ‘represented in classic Christian theology as the personification of Logos or reason.’ To God the Spirit he attributes openness, ‘often envisaged as breath or wind blowing away staleness and constantly revealing new truths and insights.’ Among these three distinct persons of the single Godhead Bradley finds room for his concept of diversity. It’s all well-rehearsed and his article says very little about the whole topic because it is essentially functioning as an advertisement for his new book, but there certainly is enough substance to start a new conversation.
Bradley characterises—and I would say rightly characterises—the narrow conservatism of the Fundamentalist view by ‘innovation and departure from tradition’, a sort of pseudo-conservatism, as the early Church was more characterised by ‘a broad liberal outlook.’
Like the early writings of Karl Barth reacting in absolute rejection of nineteenth-century liberal theology, Bradley writes off Fundamentalism ‘as the great twentieth-century heresy and aberration‘ without much consideration for why the founders of the movement believed it necessary to fight for. (I am basing this exclusively on today’s article as I have not yet read his book.)
Anyone who knows me well or reads what I write on this blog probably knows that I am no big fan of Fundamentalism, nor of Evangelicalism for that matter. But it seems to me that if I am to be a responsible student of Christianity and a true adherent to the Ecumenicism I supposedly aim for I must be open to discover God’s Spirit in many Christian traditions. (I sometimes find myself far more open to non-religious ideas than those put forth by the Evangelical tradition.) We cannot ‘wipe out the long shadow of fundamentalism’ as Bradley insists we must. Instead, we must be as gracious and generous as the progressive and transformative programme we profess to adhere to. The modern development of ‘Evangelical tradition’, flawed as it may be, has at the very least this merit: a foundational desire to faithfully and fervently seek after the things of God. It is unfortunate that the Evangelical tradition has reduced the ‘things of God’ to a very narrow and very recent set of ‘fundamentals’, but to say as Bradley does, that ‘God’s goodness is a very liberal theme and one that tends to be downplayed in conservative circles’ and that ‘conservative preachers speak a lot about God’s holiness, awesomeness and judgment but not much about God’s goodness’ is perhaps quite unfair.
In the end these two things are true: God is certainly good and gracious and we all have many beliefs that are shortsighted and flat-out wrong. I think his goodness can make up for our shortcomings, but let’s have the humility to acknowledge their inevitable existence.
Let me begin by stressing that this post is by no means an exhaustive or thorough look at this particular issue, but rather a starting point for a conversation and potential implications we can draw out for understanding the our existence in the kingdom of God, thus impacting the way we approach life in the kingdom, as is the case with all Imaging the Kingdom.
The concept of the ‘Self’ is one of great importance in the conversation of modern philosophy and Western society at large. This can take the form of investigations regarding the composition of the Self, for instance, a Scientologist might argue that the Self is composed of one’s ‘thetan’ (similar to the concept of one’s ‘spirit’). But what composes the Self in this particular sense (essence) is not the concern of this post. We will rest upon our holistic assumptions from previous ‘Imaging the Kingdom’ posts: God is the Ruler of the universe that he has created, visible and invisible. An individual will not be broken down into separate parts, as God is concerned for and invested in both in the Christian tradition.
Many modern philosophers have concerned themselves with the concept of the Self as if we can attain it through our own clever thought processes. Just as one cannot repair a hammer with said hammer, so one cannot, as a Self, step outside of said Self. In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume writes,
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of hear or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure, I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.
(David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, Sec. VI)
According to Hume, the concept of the Self can amount to, as Russell put it, ‘nothing but a bundle of perceptions’. This non-religious observation can actually assist us in our kingdom-oriented task as it can be deduced that the confidence with which, say, I perceive my Self as an individual should be softened. But the case is not closed there by any means. Hume’s conclusion does not entirely negate the value of this ‘bundle of perceptions’, but rather redefines it. As long as we are redefining the Self in light of our inability to look inward in any objective sense, I believe that the principles of the kingdom of God have profound implications for our definition.
In exploring the answer to the question ‘What is man?’ in his essay ‘The Christian Proclamation Here and Now’, Barth states,
Man exist in a free confrontation with his fellow man, in the living relationship between a man and his neighbour, between I and Thou, between man and woman. An isolated man is as such no man. ‘I’ without ‘Thou’, man without woman, and woman without man is not human existence. Human being is being with other humans. Apart from this relationship we become inhuman. We are human by being together, by seeing, hearing, speaking with, and by standing by, one another as men, insofar, that is, as we do this gladly and thus do it freely.
(Karl Barth, God Here and Now [London: Routledge, 2003], 7.)
Although Barth is answering the question ‘What is man?’ and not ‘What is the Self?’, we see community as a God-given (and necessary) setting for human existence.
Writing more specifically regarding the Self in the opening pages of The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Self’ as,
The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. In short a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two terms. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.
In a relation between two things the relation is the third term in the form of a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation, and in the relation to that relation; this is what it is from the point of view of soul for soul and body to be in relation. If, on the other hand, the relation relates to itself, then this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
(Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death [London: Penguin Books, 2008], 9-10.)
In this way the self is fully understood in the relationship. This is a relationship with the Self and relationship with the creator of the Self. Relationship is the basis for any human understanding of anything and no less for a proper understanding of the Self.
In light of Barth and Kierkegaard’s insights, a human is only truly human in community with God and man. This conclusion very closely resembles the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40). In the kingdom of God an understanding of the Self ought to be similarly characterised by God’s intentions for the Self.
Perhaps the greatest theological tenet in the Christian tradition to attest to the necessary communal aspect of existence can be found in the Trinity. Two contemporary theologians who have some very helpful insights for this discussion are John Zizioulas and Leonardo Boff. Zizioulas represents an important bridge between the Eastern and Western traditions (drawing from the work of Vladimir Lossky). Heavily influenced by the Cappadocian Fathers, Zizioulas derives that communion is an ontological category and that God exists in communion. Therefore, Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen summarises, “there is no true being without communion; nothing exists as an ‘individual’ in itself…Human existence, including the existence of the church communion, thus reflects the communal, relational being of God.” (Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives, [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007], 90.) In this way, without the doctrine of the Trinity there would be no God.
In Trinity and Society, Boff states, “The Trinity is not something thought out to explain human problems. It is the revelation of God as God is, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998], 3.) Boff argues that humanity is given a guide through this specific revelation by which to structure society.
Gathering the tools before us we can develop a picture of what the Self might properly look like in the kingdom of God:
- From Hume we can argue that an individual cannot objective conceive of the Self, but rather ‘a bundle of perceptions’ that fall short of the Self.
- From Barth we can argue that it is God’s intention for the individual to find fullest existence in community.
- From Kierkegaard we can argue that the Self is only properly understood in Hegelian relational terms – the individual, the creator and the witness of that relationship.
- From Zizioulas we can argue that the communal aspect of God is absolutely essential to his being, that the Trinity is not an appendix to Christian theism, but its heart.
- From Boff we can argue that human society ought to be structured based upon the community of the Trinity.
So where does this leave us?
Perhaps the reason for the philosophical dilemma of the Self is the fact that we’ve been taking our cues from the wrong place. If it is God’s nature to necessarily exist in the communion of the Trinity, perhaps it is no surprise that our being is also of a communal nature. In the kingdom of God the individual is not called to be alone but in community. In such a way a fuller understanding of the Self is possible, for instance:
As I relate to myself I experience all that is unique to that experience. As I relate to, say, Greg, he is able to see and experience something unique to his perspective of me.
As we relate, these things are synthesised and a fuller picture of the Self is possible. Through the differences that Greg and I encounter in one another God has designed us to act as signposts for one another to himself and his ‘otherness’.
As we look toward God we discover that Christ has come to redeem the entire world and to give humanity a new paradigm to live out of, including a new method of ‘discovering the Self’. A member of the kingdom of God has a new identity, one independent of who we once thought we were and who we may still think we are. As we relate to God we are transformed into his design for the Self. To consider us as individuals the supreme experts regarding our ‘Self’s outside of God’s intentions as demonstrated in the establishing of his kingdom through the Gospel is to ignore the reign and active investment of God in our lives. To embrace the concept of the Self that finds its fullest meaning in relating to God and to others in love we will experience the greatest blessing – the blessing that flows from active participation in and submission to the kingdom of God. In this way we ought to take seriously the call to relate to others, for it is antithetical to ‘the Self in the kingdom of God’ when we do not.
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)