A Church Referendum

Last week I wrote elsewhere about how a referendum, while a useful tool of democracy, is only a tool – and one with serious limitations and weaknesses which make it a poor choice for something as complex and important as deciding what type of voting system Canada should adopt. Last month, the church we’ve been attending had a referendum over the question of whether to allow women to be elders; this morning, more than a month later, there was still a lot of talk about the frustration and anger and grief that resulted from the “No” vote. This seemed to me to be a good case to discuss the limitations of a referendum as well as to talk about church governance models in general.

Church Governance and Democracy

I appreciate democratic forms of governance, even in a church. They arose in the church long before European governments gave up their monarchies, largely in response to the oppressive hierarchies of the Roman Catholic church. The Reformation provided a break from the RCC that went beyond theology, especially among the Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists), and among Protestant churches there are a variety of different forms of governance. Some vote about almost anything, while others elect representatives to serve as Elders, sometimes also called Board Members. Some choose a pool of good candidates and then draw lots to see who will be appointed, as in Acts. The powers of the Board of Elders vary from church to church, and Deacons play varying roles with varying levels of power in different churches. At some point, all of these types of governance were justified with Scripture, and were considered important enough to cause division between groups that were theologically very similar – which is in part why there are so many types of Baptist today. But for the most part, governance bodies are dry and boring, mostly only relating to financial matters and building maintenance.

Arguing about church governance models at the Westminster Assembly of Divines.

Until they aren’t. Churches are used to being divided by mundane issues such as what colour the carpet should be or which side of the sanctuary should house the organ, elevating those things almost to the level of theological importance; but what happens when a church Board, or the congregation, has to decide on matters of theology?

That was the case at this church. The issue of women in leadership/eldership has long been a contentious issue of theology, and was contentious enough that the denomination refused to hand down a single position, instead allowing individual churches to decide the matter for themselves. This was presumably to avoid conflict and schism in the denomination, but by passing the buck the denomination only passed the potential for division down to individual churches, which lack the authority to decide upon it.

Elitism and Democracy

I have been accused, in my recent post about the nature of referendums, of making an elitist argument: “you don’t trust the Canadian people to make the right choice,” I was told more than once. And to some extent that’s correct; I don’t trust the Canadian people to have enough knowledge of the complex models of political engagement involved to make an informed choice about which model of electoral reform would maximize the value of each vote. I argued that a referendum is good for deciding on a value or opinion, but not for writing policy, which should be left to experts. The same is true in the church, and we have a long history of saying so.

The reason that the Anabaptists went to democratic models in the first place was because the church had historically been ruled by elites so far removed from the everyday life of the congregation that they could not even relate to, let alone value, the lives of their people. The church had a system of education and worship that actually kept people from reading the Bible for themselves, continuing to use Latin long after the language had otherwise died out among the general population as a way of safeguarding the Bible from misinterpretation (though sadly not from their own misinterpretation). The idea was that biblical interpretation was such a central aspect of life that uneducated people could not be trusted to interpret it for themselves, similar to the notion that Homer Simpson should not be in charge of safety at a nuclear power plant – such things take expertise, and should not be taken lightly. We require a certain level of expertise for all sorts of things in life, especially things with the power to harm others or disrupt lives, so doctrines which relate to the eternal destiny of human beings was left to the elite of the elite.

The Reformation changed this to a large extent, with reformers translating the Bible into numerous languages and printing it so that some people could own their own copy. This surely came at least partially from the revelation that the Catholic hierarchy could also not be trusted to correctly interpret and communicate the Word of God, and that opening it up to the people would not only provide access to this wonderful text to the masses but would also create more room for accountability. But the reformers themselves, and even later Protestants, did not give up the notion that we must be educated before we can accurately interpret the Bible. In Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a 20th century Lutheran who certainly urged extensive use of Scripture by all Christians) said “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation” (294-95).

The notion that all Christians have equal understanding of Scripture simply because we all have equal access to it is more of an American evangelical idea that really proliferated through the 20th century. Fundamentalists in particular largely believe that “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The idea is that the Bible is written directly to us, for our salvation, and is therefore perfectly understandable without interpretive models. Face-value readings are all that is required to know exactly what God meant in a book written thousands of years ago in a different country and language. This view ignores the fact that we really do have interpretive models whether we recognize it or not, and it also gives the impression that anyone, regardless of their training, can interpret the Bible just as well as anyone else. It throws out experts altogether.

I’ve studied theology formally for eight years, and have continued to study it on the side since graduating with my MA. I get irritated sometimes when long-time church attenders with no formal study of Scripture under their belt take a know-it-all tone with me, as I’m sure people with PhDs and long teaching experience sometimes are irritated at my more passionate assertions that turn out to be incorrect. “Knowledge puffs up,” sure, but we can get pretty puffed up without any real knowledge too, and I know my irritations are minor compared to some of the issues that come up when we throw out our theological experts in favour of a model of interpretation wherein expertise means nothing. I’ve seen Bible and Theology professors have to ask for professional courtesy from their colleagues from other departments who disagree with them about interpretations of texts – something, it was suggested, that would probably never happen in the other direction. A theologian, no matter how accomplished, would probably defer to a trucker or mechanic about how to install a drive shaft, but I’ve been in Bible studies where truckers and mechanics scoff at educated people before sitting down to interpret ancient texts.

A Referendum on the Facts

A referendum is useful for matters of values or opinions, but when it comes to deciding issues of policy or theology there need to be experts involved. A referendum can never decide what the facts themselves are, as if reality is decided by vote. In the case of women in ministry, it is a theological issue concerning the reality of what Scripture is saying. It is a matter of determining exactly what Paul was talking about in a few key texts, and why. It is a matter of facts, not opinions.

When facts are in dispute, informed opinions about them are relevant. If we have no real respect for expert opinions, and believe that the text is equally understandable by someone with an advanced degree in the subject and someone who just picked up the text and read it at face value, then all opinions can be considered informed opinions, and a referendum is a fine way to resolve disputes about contested facts. But if there is a reality that doesn’t depend on the opinions of people who may or may not have even reflected on the relevant texts before, or understood their own cultural and systemic biases, or explored the original context and interpretive history of the texts, then perhaps we should rely more on the views of those who have studied the matter in depth.

I don’t think that this church holds to a strong fundamentalist view of interpretation, nor do I think that it is well-stocked with Bible scholars. Instead, it is a normal church stocked with average people: teachers, tradesmen, truckers, gardeners, marketers, engineers, etc., who read their Bibles about as much as any other Christian and have about as much theological education as most (usually limited to a few church Bible studies). They are not inherently misogynistic, but they have deep cultural roots, and for many this issue is a canary in the coal mine, a sign that liberal values are overtaking their own. This does not make them bad or stupid people (they’re quite lovely, so far as I know them), but it should give a general sense that they are not those who are best qualified to decide this issue of biblical interpretation. Their elders are representative of the church, and are similarly unqualified to weigh in with expert opinions on the relevant passages; again, this does not imply anything bad about them, but merely that they are not career scholars on this subject (and nor should they be – that’s not their function as Elders).

The only person in the church who is reasonably expected to have a strong enough credential to weigh in on the issue is the pastor, and if I understand their church governance structure correctly, he doesn’t have a say in this, though he can make recommendations. The denomination is adequately stocked with pastors and professors who could weigh in on this, but they declined to do so as a body, again likely because of the politics that comes with it. But the fact that church politics can get in the way of biblical experts clarifying a biblical text in a Bible-believing church shows how deeply flawed this notion is that we can all read the Bible and be experts enough that our opinions can settle disputed facts of deep interpretation. Some issues are so contentious that they undermine not just the very notion of expertise, but even the authority of an international denomination.

Conclusion

Some people are quite upset. I don’t blame them; I can’t imagine being told that I’m a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God, or that my God-given gifts are inappropriate for service to the church because of my gender. As a newcomer and non-member of this church, it’s not my place to say anything (and I don’t get a vote anyway); but as a theologian and someone who analyzes systems and institutions, this is a great example of a falling power. An institution becomes fallen when it undermines its created purposes in order to maintain its own power or self-perpetuation. A denomination that shirks its role in providing expertise and authority in theological matters is shooting itself in the foot, and forcing churches to decide matters of biblical interpretation by vote rather than by determining truth. In the process, more than half of the church population is made unavailable for service to the church as elders, and the theological implications of this decision for women have yet to be worked out. The message this morning, from a series of elders in announcements, sermonettes, and prayers, and then from the pastor in the sermon, and from the choices of songs, was a resounding call for unity; the subtext was “can we all just move on now?” That’s the thing about a referendum, though; they always come back around. This issue won’t go away until it’s resolved, and a referendum isn’t capable of resolving it.

No Buts

I’ve started attending a Bible study at my church, working through Romans. This morning we were talking about Romans 3-4, but I missed last week, so I read 1-4, and I was glad I did; after Paul’s greetings, his argument in the first four chapters is fairly unified: no buts allowed.

This is one of those passages that surprises me when I take my time and think it through, because I realize that I’ve been reading it and taking the opposite point from the one he’s making. For example, it’s easy to read Romans 1 and focus on the list of sins there; this chapter is also especially prominent in the debate about homosexuality for that reason. Taken in isolation, chapter 1 is a vision of life without God, of profanity and depravity that has no place in a church. It’s very easy for us Christians to read that and be glad that we’re not like those awful, sick people who hate God.

In context, though, Paul isn’t talking about irreligious people; he’s talking about the Gentile Christians in the church in Rome, for whom all of that was part of their culture and religion before they became Christians. Even so, we think, we’re glad that we were raised Christian and don’t have all of that nasty sin in our lives.

But Paul doesn’t let us off the hook, because then in chapter 2 he moves on to the Jewish Christians in that same church, and tears them apart for thinking those very same things. His scathing diatribe against hypocrisy points out that we (the religious) are in absolutely no position to judge others because we are similarly sinful. Our religious pedigree doesn’t matter.

It’s at this point that I’m prone to read this and think “I’m glad I’m not one of those religious Jews who depend on the Law,” forgetting already that I had previously counted myself on that side when I was disdaining those who did not have the Law to break.

With a small aside in chapter 3 about how having the Law does provide some advantage for the Jews, he rolls right on with his argument: that we’re all sinners, and nobody is righteous. This is where, taken in isolation, we get to feel some quality Christian guilt, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I memorized that verse in Sparks when I was a little kid, having no idea what it meant, and I wonder now how we manage to keep it so disconnected from its context.

We’re all willing to acknowledge that everyone is a sinner, sometimes even wearing this as a badge of honour because it is so central to evangelical Christianity – that everyone needs Jesus, even us. But we’re not able to identify with the two groups that Paul is referring to leading up to this key verse; we stand at a third point, from which we have managed to look down on both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

What’s worse, we actually question their salvation, which we can only do by chopping off chapters 3 and 4 almost in their entirety. Paul goes on to say that, because we’re all sinners (as he has pointed out in chapters 1 and 2), we can neither boast nor judge. In one place he formulates it as “so that every mouth will be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” That is, under the law or not, we’re all going to stand before God for judgment, not each other. But he continues, and makes it clear that it’s not just that we cannot earn our own salvation and therefore not brag, or that we are all sinners and therefore cannot judge, but that we cannot speculate about the salvation of others because of the nature of salvation itself.

Salvation, or redemption through righteousness by faith, is described as something that existed before there was a Law to obey. By referring back to Abraham, Paul points out that the Law is not a precursor to salvation but rather a sign of it. But the sticking point for me in this reading is the nature of Abraham’s faith: it is not that Abraham believed that God existed, which was a given; it is not that Abraham believed the Scriptures, which had not been written; rather, it is that Abraham “believed God.” He took God at God’s word. That’s it. God made Abraham a promise, and Abraham believed that God would make good on it, and God credited that to him as righteousness.

What Paul is saying about faith is that simply believing God when God says that we are redeemed is enough.

But…but…but. We fight Paul when we read this book, setting up objections that he tears down one by one. He shows us life without God, and we feel good about ourselves and say “but we’re not like that.” And he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “but we’re not like those Jews and Pharisees” and he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “oh yes, we all need salvation (especially those other people), but we need to do the right things;” and he says “there is nothing you can do to earn this.” Then we say “right, but we need to believe the right things,” usually meaning that someone must have our precise notion of all of the Bible and church doctrines, and he says “you only need to believe, like Abraham, that God is faithful.”

Jesus talked about people like me when he told a parable about workers being hired in the town square. The landowner came by the square every hour to hire more workers, so that some were hired at the first hour of the day and some even at the last hour of the day. At the end of the day every worker received the same wage, whether they worked all day or just one hour, and the ones who worked all day were very upset about this; they hated the generosity of the landowner, who paid them a fair and agreed-upon wage but also gave the same wage to those who had done less. Salvation, Jesus points out, is not fair; it is grace.

We’re wired to desire fairness and hate unfairness, but grace is always and by definition unmerited, unfair. So we read a gospel of grace, and come up with all sorts of reasons to excuse ourselves to receive grace (because we need it), and all sorts of excuses for why others should not receive it. We’re full of buts.

Biohacking/Transhumanism/Self-Evolution, and the Doctrine of Creation

I’ve been on a Note to Self kick lately. If you’re into podcasts, I highly recommend it. It is a “tech podcast about being human”, or basically about how we interact with technology and whether or not that enriches our lives. They’ve just been through a mini-series of episodes about biohacking – that is, tech that manipulates the way our bodies function. They tried out apps that will supposedly help you kick your sugar habits, wearable tech that uses electricity to manipulate your brain states (to give you your morning boost without coffee, for example, or your evening chill time without wine), and finally talked to a guy who tracks biometric data and experiments on himself in order to increase his body’s performance.

At one point in this episode about biohacking, the term “self-evolution” came up. Dave Asprey, the biohacker, firmly believes that we can take control of our own evolution, at least as individuals, through applying our knowledge and technology to improve the performance of our bodies and the quality – and length – of our lives. This is not a new concept, and for years I’ve been hearing about “transhumanism”, which often takes the dream of living forever through technology to the point of androids (human/robot hybrids) as a way of preserving human consciousness in a body that will not break down or be vulnerable to disease or damage. That doesn’t seem to be the way that Asprey is going, but it may be that he’s simply too practical for such dreams; he wants to know how he can live better today, rather than speculate about technologies that could possibly allow us to download our consciousness into a robot body.

This concept, and especially the term “self-evolution”, immediately made me think of the Christian doctrine of Creation. Many Christians are deeply opposed to any notion of transhumanism or biohacking based on their understanding of Creation. If God created us precisely as we are, ex nihilo, then biohacking takes on the appearance of tampering with the sacred. Who are we to “improve” on God’s design? Traditionally, this has been an argument against tattoos and body piercings. This is often also the basis for Christian opposition to transgendered rights: many believe that transgendered people are simply delusional, and that a sex change operation does not in fact change their sex or gender, resulting in a person who is now biologically confused as well as cognitively confused about themselves. In their view, allowing transgendered rights (as simple as going to the bathroom that matches their perceived gender rather than their biological sex) is only compounding the problems and pains of transgendered people, who ultimately need to find peace with the body that God, in his infinite wisdom, has given them. This view is typically based in a literal, 6-day creation reading of Genesis, but not necessarily; it is possible to hold that God used evolution to achieve his ends, but still had very specific ends in mind in regard to human bodies, and therefore it would still be problematic to change them drastically.

But the first thing I thought of in regard to the doctrine of Creation is not that transhumanism somehow violates it, but that it may indeed be a continuation of it. In Human Significance in Theology and the Natural Sciences, Christopher L. Fischer examines the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Protestant), Karl Rahner (Catholic), and John Zizioulas (Orthodox), with the aim of showing that we ought to hold to a critical anthropocentrism – that is, that both science and Christian faith both hold that humanity is somehow special in comparison to the rest of the universe. But what he shows along the way is that all three of these theologians (and by representation, all three major strands of Christianity) fit well with the notion of evolution; that is, they hold that God did not create us ex nihilo, but that creation is an ongoing process – that is, we are always evolving and growing. What stood out to me when I read it, especially in the summary of Rahner’s views on this, is that all three to some extent hold that creation is something that God allows us to participate in as co-creators. That is, we have a hand in how the earth and its creatures will continue to evolve and change – and we also have a say in our own evolution.

That we have a hand in our own evolution seems obvious: our ability to biohack has grown exponentially over the past century, and even over the past decade. While I do not share Asprey’s confidence in technology allowing us to live to 180 within my lifetime, technology has certainly changed the way that we live in the distant past (think of the difference between hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies) and the recent past (think of the difference in quality and length of life in the past century). There has also been much written about the way that our socially constructed world has taken a major role in our evolution, while the role of the physical environment in our evolution has been minimized; that is, while evolution is “survival of the fittest”, the natural world is no longer the thing that kills us off, as our survival depends more on our ability to cooperate with other humans than it does on our ability to escape wild beasts or find food for ourselves. Many Christians deny that we have any ability to affect the direction of human history, whether by warming the planet or by any political actions – that is, they hold that God is totally in control of all things, and “progress” is either a myth or a result of God’s sovereign hand guiding history. But these three theologians say otherwise, holding that the thing that makes human beings significant is precisely that we, as co-creators, have an active role in shaping what we are becoming. The ultimate end of our becoming or our evolution is to be like Christ, the true human, and we are invited to participate in this and have the freedom to do so – or the freedom to become something else, at least on an individual basis.

In light of the notion that humanity participates in its own ongoing creation (or evolution), the notion of self-evolution that Asprey is talking about doesn’t seem so blasphemous. Foolhardy, maybe, as he experiments with his own brain function and heart rate, but not blasphemous. If God allows us to participate in our own progress toward Christlikeness and the Kingdom of God, surely living longer and healthier than our current bodies allow is not a contrary goal, is it? If we are co-creators with God, are there theological limits on our ability to tinker with our physical bodies?

What do you think? Is biohacking and transhumanism the next step in human evolution? Is it a way to participate in God’s ongoing work of creation?

Thinking and Feeling

A trend that has caught some attention recently is the increase in “trigger warnings,” which allow people who have been traumatized to know if they should avoid a particular article, lecture, film, course, etc. that might trigger difficult emotional responses or even flashbacks to their trauma. Such trigger warnings are increasingly commonplace, and controversial: some argue that putting warnings on anything that might trigger a negative emotional response sanitizes the world and makes it nearly impossible to talk about anything. This is seen as an extension of the so-called doctrine of “politically correct” or “PC” speech that politicians and talking heads like Donald Trump say is emblematic of a breakdown in society. Some take it as an infringement on their right to free speech, others merely an inconvenience, and others as a sign of weakness.

This post is not about being politically correct. I brought this trend up because it points to another trend, which is that we’re more aware of mental health issues than ever before, and presumably we have more mental health issues than ever before (though that’s hard to tell, if we did not identify them in the past). Put differently, we’re aware of our feelings more than ever, and we’re taking steps to protect them. Counselling was only for the weak when I was a kid, but is commonplace now. Anti-bullying groups and legislation are working to stop playground – and increasingly, online – harassment and assault against kids and teens, and such programs are usually very well supported by the community (unless they are specifically aimed at those who bully gay kids, but that’s a story for another day too).

But not everyone, even among those who support anti-bullying clubs (at least in principle), thinks that this increasing awareness of our feelings and the desire to protect those feelings is a good thing. And not just for free speech concerns either. There is a legitimate argument here: sometimes we’re offended by things that we shouldn’t be offended by, and sometimes being offended can be a good thing. For example, I regularly see Christians get offended by things they feel go against their religion; as a Christian who has studied Christianity extensively over the last dozen years, the things that some Christians take to be anti-Christian often baffle me. I’ve even seen examples of Christians offended by genuine expressions of orthodox, mainstream Christianity, showing their ignorance of their own faith tradition. When that happens, I feel offended by their ignorant backlash, and I’m glad that I haven’t become so cynical as to not be bothered by the way my religion gets absolutely butchered and misrepresented in such situations. I’m offended when people are cruel or cold to others, too, because I see our shared humanity being disrespected. If we cover up all of the things that offend us because we don’t like feeling offended, how can we ever actually address injustice? If survivors of the residential school system hadn’t come forward to tell their deeply unsettling stories, would we ever move toward reconciliation?

But some take the concern further, saying that this awareness of our feelings and desire to protect them undermines our ability to think. I came across this meme a few days ago:

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This is obviously an old quote, but it’s making the rounds on Facebook. I don’t know the original context, but the way it is presented here draws a distinction between thinking and feeling that should not exist. It is somewhat possible to separate them, and the fact that it is possible is evidenced by the way people devalue feeling and elevate thinking when they pass stuff like this around. It is evidenced by the way that an entire generation of apologists value being right more than they value the feelings of those whom they believe are wrong. Me saying so is undoubtedly unfair: most of these apologists are explicitly concerned with the eternal salvation of those with and about whom they debate. But nevertheless, they continue to say and do things that hurt people, and when those people complain about being hurt they resort to this theory that people simply feel too much and think too little, and confuse their feeling with thinking.

Here’s the thing about feeling: it is entirely subjective. We have never had the myth that feeling is objective, like we have with thinking. For the past few hundred years (the “modern” era) we have held the delusion that we can think objectively, that what is obvious to one person ought to be recognized as truth by others because it merely reflects reality. This way of thinking was challenged by postmodern views, which point out that our thinking is almost entirely subjective and that true objectivity is either nearly or entirely impossible. But we’ve always known this about feelings – some people are more sensitive than others. Some people are moved to tears by a sunset, while others have no pity for a puppy with only one leg (remember Strongbad, anyone?). We’ve historically found social uniformity with feelings mostly by making sensitive people suppress their emotions (usually by calling them names like “wuss” and “pussy”), which is probably why it took us so long to realize just how crucial mental health is to a healthy person and a healthy society. We now know that emotional trauma even has physiological effects, and are discovering that many people with physical symptoms like obesity or drug addiction have been using such things to hide/treat childhood trauma. So while the extent and importance of feeling is becoming increasingly apparent, we’ve always known that people feel differently and for different reasons – but compared to the universal objectivity of critical thinking, subjective feelings were deemed illusory, contradicting, and maybe even dangerous.

But now that we realize that thinking is not objective, we can no longer make such a separation. We now recognize that we see the world through a unique lens that is shaped by our previous knowledge and experience – the same things that shape our feelings. We are able to think about almost anything, but inevitably our feelings reveal our true beliefs and worldview, which we hold largely subconsciously.

Christians deal with this all the time: we recognize the difficulty of turning our beliefs into actions or a way of life is terribly difficult. In church this morning, the pastor pointed out that Peter really believed that he was ready to die with Jesus and would not abandon him. The scene in which Peter realizes that he has abandoned Jesus so is terribly poignant. Did Peter’s feelings and instincts for self-preservation overcome his belief, or did his actions simply exemplify a level of commitment that turned out to be less than he believed it was? Was it his feelings that were at fault, or his thinking? Did he just lack courage, or did he overestimate the amount of courage he actually had? The answer, of course, is both.

Traditionally, the church has upheld three integrated points of discipleship: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. The fact that my spellchecker only recognizes the first of these three words goes to show how much we have valued one of these above the others. Orthodoxy, or right belief, has unfortunately taken precedence for I-don’t-know-how-long.  Orthopraxy, or right actions, has been deemed too Catholic by most Protestant churches, which emphasize the saving grace of God over (and apart from) works or actions. And orthopathy, or right “affections”…well, I had to look the term up, and I only became aware of its existence at all halfway through Seminary. The point is, these three things are interrelated: we can say that we have integrity only if our thoughts, feelings (desires), and actions all align, but for at least the last few hundred years we’ve only seen integrity as an alignment between beliefs and actions, leaving affections out of it entirely.

With that in mind, I think it is absolutely fantastic that feeling is in fashion right now. Yes, many people are feeling things that are based on wrong beliefs, and that’s a problem! But the problem is their wrong beliefs, not their wrong feelings; their connection between thinking and feeling is an important one, and while it is totally legitimate to correct wrong beliefs, we must recognize that their feelings are not right or wrong at all. Feelings are objective, in the sense that we cannot choose or change them – they just exist, as a natural response to our experience and beliefs. We cannot criticize someone who is overly sensitive for feeling, nor can we dismiss their feelings without dismissing them as human beings. Our feelings are part of us, and rarely subject to our rational choices.

What we can do instead is recognize a person’s feelings, validate them as a legitimate response to their perceptions and experience, and then address any misperceptions they may have that led to their emotional response. Because not only is it rude and dehumanizing to dismiss or ignore or ridicule someone’s feelings, it’s actually counter-productive – because no matter how much we talk about the primacy of logical reasoning, in a stressful situation our feelings guide our actions more than our thoughts do. When we experience great stress, our prefrontal cortex (the decision-making, logical, rational part of our brain) shuts down and we go into a sort of auto-pilot (often referred to as fight-or-flight mode), and we take actions that are based on things much deeper than thought – but our feelings are still powerfully present even when we can’t think straight. So the next time someone asks for a trigger warning, take it as a sign that they would prefer to remain rational rather than being plunged into the high-emotion low-rationality state of recurring trauma.

My son is a constant reminder to me of the importance of recognizing and validating the feelings and desires of others. Toddlers are experiencing many emotions, sometimes for the first time and always uncontrollably, and it often causes them to act out in ways that they would actually not prefer. When a kid has a tantrum, it’s almost always because they’re feeling something and they don’t know what to do with it; telling them that you know what it is they desire (“I know you want that toy”) is usually enough to calm them down, because they know that being understood helps them to understand themselves. That’s the brilliance of human community: we know by being known, and we deal with emotions by sharing them with others. We call this compassion. All of this is just as true for adults as it is for children.

So be careful with the affections of others, and recognize that their emotions may precede, but certainly inform, their understanding and knowledge. Just as our own integrity depends on the interplay between our beliefs, affections, and actions, so too our health, relationships, and ability to communicate also depend on all three things. So rather than pitting thinking against feeling, recognize that it is only by recognizing someone’s feelings that you can find out what they really think.

Kevin Garcia burst my bubble, and it hurts

Kevin Garcia posted an article today about being in an abusive relationship with his church. It’s good, you should read it. In it, he talks about how difficult it is for a queer Christian to feel truly welcome, loved, and accepted in a church that is not affirming of homosexuality.

We are the ones having to be brave, sensitive, nuanced, vulnerable, and accommodating in nearly every scenario. And often times, we’re expected to give a full apologetics on our theological backing for living fully outside the closet as queer Christians.

That’s not relationship or conversation. That’s playing defense.

And it gets super tiring.

I walk into a space, and automatically I’m having to justify my existence. I can’t ever just be. Even with my small group, the place where I’m most longing for that intimacy and connection, there is tension.

This is a great example of the need for what Wendy Vanderwal-Gritter calls “Generous Spaciousness,” or creating a space where people can just be without having to justify themselves. This should be normal in church, a place completely covered by grace so that no sin or perceived sin can place conditions on or otherwise influence our love for one another.

There’s so much in Kevin’s article that I agree with, but I’m having trouble getting past a few things:

It is easy for a straight person or pastor trying to figure out how to love their queer parishoners well to say things like “we need to choose love and relationship over agreement.”  As a heterosexual individual, you don’t have to justify your life or your existence or your marriage or your theology to the vast majority of our culture, let alone the vast majority of Christians.

I get a lot of people who look at me and say, “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love you and love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?”

My gut reaction to that? It must be nice not to have to pick a side.

And I bet if I didn’t show up at your church, in your small group, you wouldn’t have had to think about it at all. Sorry to burst your bubble.

And that may sound harsh, but honestly, really, all you straight people out there are so damn lucky.

I really get that it’s much more difficult for gay Christians than straight Christians – that somehow generous spaciousness already applies to me, and not to queer believers. There are no elephants in my room, so to speak. But as much as it may be easier for me, I think Kevin does allies a huge disservice by saying that it’s easy. Please allow me to illustrate with my own story.

I’ve been studying theology formally for the past dozen years. Eight years ago I was pretty staunchly in the anti-gay camp, not in the sense that I wanted to stone anyone, but in the sense that I couldn’t read the relevant texts any other way: homosexuality was clearly a sin in the Bible, and the Bible shaped my whole worldview. I had studied the issue extensively, getting right down to the Hebrew and Greek of the relevant verses, and I felt very secure in my view of homosexuality on that basis. Arguments for different readings were becoming more and more common, but they seemed to me to be attempts to justify or get around what were obviously very unambiguous texts. I was grieved by the negative way many people perceived these texts, but felt sure that the text outweighed any other factors: homosexuality must be a choice in order for it to be sinful, and if it’s sinful it must be a choice, with the subjective perceptions of individual experience by homosexuals being, sadly, just plain wrong.

As I continued to study, my hermeneutic changed. I learned a lot more about the literary nature of the text, and changing standards of morality throughout the Bible. The tension between the prophetic and the priestly. But those particular texts are deeply priestly, and as much as I prefer the prophetic and can recognize the tension, I can’t dismiss the priestly, and I still have trouble with the arguments that dismiss those texts as referring to something else – the evidence for that, even after years of study and better arguments appearing, seems just a little bit too weak. Other arguments have become more helpful: more than ever, I read all of the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and I have a hard time imagining Jesus selectively and aggressively picking on homosexuality over and above other sins; I read the Bible theologically more and more, and my theology is similarly not so selective, and more concerned about systemic evil and God’s identification with the oppressed; and I am frequently comforted by the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15, whose presence and empowerment of Gentile believers caused the early church to accept that God loves whomever God chooses regardless of the rules. But those problematic texts are still there, alongside the ones where God commands genocide.

During this period of theological development, I also learned a lot about homosexuality. I’ve watched friends from Bible college come out with enormous backlash from their churches. I’ve watched friends from high school come out and carry on long-term and seemingly very happy and healthy relationships. I’ve had friends who are staunch queer allies correct my assumptions about homosexuality and gender normativity. I’ve read about a gender spectrum, a sexual spectrum, chromosomes, and socially constructed gender. I’ve even had friends confide in me about their own journey of accepting their sexuality in the church. Knowing just a little bit about the depth of their hurt, it became increasingly clear to me that I need to love and serve them unconditionally, no matter what those problematic texts say.

And that’s where it isn’t easy. While I’m no longer a biblicist (that is, I now see the Bible as witness to God in Jesus Christ, rather than itself being divine revelation floating down from heaven), the Bible is still fairly central to my identity as a follower of Christ. To count myself as an ally to LGBTQ+ people, believers and non, I live with a dissonance that cuts to the core of who I am. I’ve found a way to keep that dissonance from ripping me apart, and I do that by subordinating the importance of certain texts to the importance of loving and serving unconditionally. I really do say things like “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?” I don’t usually include the second sentence, or even specify “gay people” rather than just “people”, but my point is simply that saying this costs me.

By saying this, I have chosen a side. I have chosen to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people, even when I feel like I might be encouraging them to sin, might even be working against God. I don’t feel that way often, but those texts nag at me whenever I think about them, so I mostly choose not to think about them at all. I’ve chosen to sacrifice my integrity as a reader and interpreter of the Bible, to stop revisiting the same texts over and over again because resolving them is too hard and comes with too high of a cost. I’ve chosen a cop-out answer to the most difficult texts, even though by doing so I not only feel like a fraud, but I get called on that cop-out by people on both sides of the issue.

What compounds this for me is that I’m trained to be a pastor as well as a theologian. My theologian side is okay with mystery, but still has a lot of pride tied up in my ability to interpret the Bible well. But my pastoral side is subject to denominational faith statements and the views of any church that might hire me. They’re not exactly knocking my door down with job offers, but even if I were in high demand, I have to satisfy both parties (the denomination and the congregation) with clear, unequivocal statements. By being an ally, I have actually limited my influence in church circles where it is perhaps needed most. But while my theological and pastoral training compounds the issue for me, it also gives me the tools to continue to work through the theological and pastoral issues; for the average person in the average church, it must be much more difficult to navigate those difficult texts. For the average believer becoming an ally must be an even bigger deal, because it probably means going against the word of someone in a position of pastoral and theological authority in their lives. Their cognitive dissonance and professional pride might be less of an issue, but their social dissonance is probably much bigger than mine.

So no, it’s absolutely not easy for straight parishioners or pastors to choose love and relationship over agreement. Our identity as followers of Christ is central, and the Bible is central to our understanding of Christ. We do not set aside texts lightly, and we cannot do so without a deep cost. I look forward to a day when I can read the whole Bible without any sense of dissonance and love everyone without reference to the text, and I think that day might actually come. But in the meantime, I’ll continue to feel uncomfortable with the issue of homosexuality in the church, not because I need you to explain yourself, but because I can’t explain myself or feel okay with the fact that I’ve ignored parts of the text that I can’t come to terms with. My room, and the church, are full of our own elephants. It just might be that constantly calling on queer people to explain their theology and sexuality is projection of our own discomfort with the texts, not with you.

Our “unconditional love”, as Kevin’s friend Matthias points out, is rarely unconditional or even particularly loving. We suck at this. I’ve had super awkward conversations with other believers – hopefully not condescending, as he describes – but they were with seniors or people with very different political views more than with any gay believers. There are so many things that divide us, whether it is generations or politics or theology or just plain social awkwardness. I’m not saying any of this to minimize the struggle that queer people deal with in the church – it is so, so real, and we need to hear more about it and be reminded of it. But I’m saying this simply to point out that it’s awkward all around, and not all of it is outward-oriented; very little of my awkwardness is about you, it’s almost entirely about me. And I’m willing to bet that that’s the rule, not the exception.

Sometimes when we feel rejected, we say “what’s your problem?!” or “it’s your loss!” I’m recognizing the truth of those statements more and more. So if you ever feel like an outsider who’s been pushed aside, or feel like your allies offer cheap support, remember that it really is our problem – we’re just exhibiting our own issues, self-consciousness, and sinfulness. I’m sorry that it hurts you; it hurts us too, and we need to be aware of your hurt and ours, because most of us are in denial about it. The more we all realize that, the more likely we are to create genuine generous spaciousness, and give and receive the real grace and acceptance that we all need. So please, keep sharing these stories, they make a difference; I hope mine has too.

Scapegoating in a Globalized World

I’m powering through the five-part podcast series “The Scapegoat” on CBC’s Ideas. It was originally aired in 2001, but was re-released recently in the wake of Rene Girard’s death last Fall. It explores Girard’s thought in a series of interviews with Girard and a few other scholars.

Tonight I listened to part 4, which brought up the fact that there are two types of mimetic rivalry: external, and internal. But first let’s talk about mimetic rivalry in general.

Girard’s central insight is that human beings are inherently mimetic: we imitate each other, particularly when it comes to desire. I desire what you have, imitating your desire for what you have. You then see that I desire what you have, and your own desire for it becomes all the stronger. But this shared or mimetic desire therefore leads to mimetic rivalry: we both want what you have, and begin to compete with one another for it. But as I compete with you for what you have, you then imitate my competition, so that eventually the mimesis is not about the object of the initial desire at all, but rather about each other. We each call upon the other to imitate ourselves, while also seeking to imitate the other, and in so doing get in each others’ way. Girard holds that this tension and rivalry is the root of human violence, and that religious sacrifice of a scapegoat is a way of channelling that violence onto a common enemy of the community to discharge the tension that threatens the peace of the community. The incredible contribution of first Judaism and then especially Christianity is that it exposes religious sacrifice for what it truly is, a system of controlling and discharging that violence, and that the victim or scapegoat is in fact innocent.

In part four of this series, Girard talks about two types of mimesis: external, and internal. External mimesis is when we imitate someone with whom we cannot compete, and therefore it is imitation without rivalry. We cannot compete with this other person because of a distance between us, whether that is physical distance (in space or time, such as when we imitate a hero from the past or from another country) or social distance (as when we imitate a parent or a person from another social class with whom we could not effectively become a rival). Girard holds that the course of history is toward more and more internal mimesis, and therefore more rivalry; and while his theory of why this is has primarily to do with psychology, I see a different cause – not that they are mutually exclusive, but sadly, probably cumulative.

Globalization is a complex social process by which the world becomes more and more economically interdependent, socially smaller, and culturally integrated. Globalization, then, has reduced or removed the social and physical distance that keeps some mimesis external, allowing for much more internal mimesis.

As we become more democratic, the social distance between different classes disappears: if a hundred years ago a blue collar worker wanted to imitate a banker, they would have tremendous difficulty doing so, whereas now there are social forums in which their different levels of wealth and connections are to some extent set aside, allowing mimetic rivalry where before none was possible. Further, the American Dream is mimetic: a Donald Trump explicitly invites competition with new rivals, and uses the mythology of the American Dream to level the playing field with would-be rivals in order to better induce their mimesis, using their imitation and perceived competition as a way to gain their identification with him, and therefore to gain their support for his presidential nomination. Democracy and cultural shifts have removed the social distance element of external mimesis, making internal mimesis with those to whom we are physically close more possible and likely.

But globalization has also reduced physical distances, not only through transportation (because you can fly around the world in a day), but also through the internet (a new place that is easily accessible from almost anywhere in the world), and through immigration and cultural integration (or lack thereof). For example, let’s say that I want to imitate Tony Robbins, the self-help guru: we’re both enormously large people (he’s much bigger, which just makes me want to surpass him in other ways even more!) who speak in public and write (hopefully) inspirational things. In fact, his whole schtick as an inspirational speaker is largely inviting mimesis: he invites our imitation explicitly, and also implicitly by modelling success and linking it to the principles he preaches. So if I were to take some of those principles and start preaching them in my own words, perhaps even initially giving him credit, I would eventually run into conflict with him when it turns out that we are each holding super-exclusive conferences in the same city on the same weekend! My imitation of him has now become rivalry with him because of our physical proximity, because these days guys like Tony and I just fly around to new places all the time. Of course, it would likely turn to rivalry much sooner, probably as soon as I first published a blog post on a website that competes with his. A hundred years ago if he was in the US and I was in Canada, our paths would likely never cross and if they did it would be non-confrontational, but in the internet age we are in immediate rivalry.

The immigration aspect of rivalry is a bit scarier, and it incorporates another important sociological and theological concept: representation. For decades now, the “clash of civilizations” model has been prevalent. The basic idea is that Eastern (i.e., Muslim) and Western civilizations cannot coexist, and will eventually come into direct conflict. This is of course not at all necessary or inevitable, but many believe that it is. This idea goes back for ages, but it has taken on a large following in the last few decades because globalization has put East and West in close proximity: a comment on the internet or in the press today can lead to international war tomorrow. While it is common for the scapegoat to come from among us, in cases of war the scapegoat comes from a rival group or clan – in this case, from Islam.

There are enormous tensions in our society (economic inequality, race issues, environmental issues, gender and sexuality, etc.) that can be overcome by giving us a common enemy, the scapegoated Muslim. On the other end there are enormous tensions as well, many of them legitimately linked to the Western military and economic domination of the Middle East for the last 40-50 years, but many internal too – poverty, clan warfare, religious ideological divides, etc. While the West tends to scapegoat a leader (Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden) or a faction (the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh) and use it as pretext for an invasion, angry Eastern militants lack the military power for such tactics, and instead declare war on the West in general and then gruesomely execute individual westerners.

This is where representation comes in. Daesh doesn’t particularly care who they execute, so long as they’re a white westerner, the more prestigious the better. To them, each one of those people is representative of the West, of American military oppression, etc. They are symbolic representatives of their enemies, and therefore symbolic victories. Typically, it is the only type of victory they can achieve against superior military rivals.

For the West, the representation goes the other way: to attack a single person, we invade a nation and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Let that sink in: Daesh kills individuals in order to achieve a type of victory over a massive enemy, while we kill masses of people to achieve victory over individual enemies. (This in no way justifies what Daesh does, but we need to keep our own actions in perspective.)

But with immigration, representation goes the other way for us too. Daesh kills individual white people largely because white people are hard to find in their part of the world – usually only Western soldiers or journalists, perhaps some aid workers. But meanwhile, while we are at war with a foreign group like Daesh who claim to be motivated by Islam, there are millions of Muslims in North America. It is very easy for us to scapegoat those Muslims who live among us for the crimes of Daesh half a world away, and we’ve seen that in an increase in violence against Muslims and vandalism toward mosques in the past year.

So while the fight against Daesh can serve as a scapegoat for all of our internal pressures and politics, relieving the tensions we carry about race and sexuality and other hot-button political issues, the tension we carry about fighting Daesh gets relieved by attacking the individual Muslims or other immigrant outsiders in our own midst. Our scapegoating is now serialized.

This type of serial scapegoating will only increase because of the smaller world created by globalization. Once upon a time, having a common enemy on the other side of the world provided an ongoing release of internal tension by setting up a rivalry that could not be consummated due to the physical distance and sheer cost of doing so – so we could feel free to hate, say, the Chinese, because we would never actually meet them. Once upon a time we could dream about a class revolution, when we would finally get what was ours from the rich bankers and elites who barely knew we existed, but not yet, so we’ll get back to work for now until we have the means to launch that revolution. We could scapegoat without actual violence, because social and physical distances kept us separated from our would-be rivals, and therefore no actual rivalries or violence ensued. Now, it would seem, violence is always available to us, always there to funnel the internal tensions created by our ever-increasing rivalry (which has become the basis for our economic systems), allowing us to drop bombs in Iraq to keep from exploding into civil war or murder at home.

More than ever, we need Christ, who is the anti-scapegoat. Christ not only reveals the innocence of all scapegoats, but also the ignorant participation of all of us in putting them (and him) to death. Girard says that becoming a Christian means acknowledging that you are a persecutor of Christ, recognizing your role in scapegoating, and following Christ in the way of defusing this cycle of rivalry and institutionalized murder. So when someone you know is ranting about Muslim immigrants (or homosexuals, or Mexicans, etc.), first be cognizant of your own status as a participant in the scapegoating and murder of Christ and so many others, and then self-consciously address the scapegoating you see. Like Christ, identify with the scapegoat and absorb that rivalry (and if necessary, that violence) into yourself willingly – not seeking it or stirring it up, but not shrinking from it either, like Christ before Pilate. While representation can lead to scapegoating, it can also undo it if we choose to represent the other, to represent the scapegoat.

Christ is the ultimate imitator, imitating God the Father and asking us to imitate him. This is the ultimate external mimesis, a mimesis without rivalry in which we imitate him who refuses all rivalry. As the conditions for internal mimesis grow, it is more crucial than ever that we imitate Christ, and in so doing, defuse rivalries – starting with our own.

On the Sanctity of Life

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that laws that banned Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) violated the Charter rights of Canadians and suggested conditions under which PAS might be administered so as to prevent abuse. A government committee recently released a report suggesting expanding those conditions, even before any legislation to that effect was proposed.

Bruce Clemenger has since written numerous editorials in Faith Today that see the Supreme Court ruling, which overturned a previous ruling that had prohibited PAS, as the triumph of personal autonomy over the sanctity of life. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, of which Clemenger is president, is campaigning against PAS, and the implication is that they do so based on Christian values. So I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering about where we get our Christian notion of the sanctity of life. Let’s take a look.

The Sanctity of Life

sanc·ti·ty
ˈsaNG(k)tədē/
noun
noun: sanctity; plural noun: sanctities
  1. the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly.
    “the site of the tomb was a place of sanctity for the ancient Egyptians”
    synonyms: holiness, godliness, blessedness, saintliness, spirituality, piety, piousness, devoutness, righteousness, goodness, virtue, purity;

    “the sanctity of St. Francis”
    • ultimate importance and inviolability.
      “the sanctity of human life”
      synonyms: inviolability;

      importance, paramountcy
      “the sanctity of the family meal”

When we talk about the sanctity of life, particularly in relation to life and death issues such as PAS and abortion, we tend to mean “inviolability” as the definition above suggests. Life, we hold, is of ultimate importance – it is inviolable, trumping every other consideration.

Now, aside from the fact that we violate this all the time with war, the death penalty (thankfully not in Canada), and how we allocate foreign aid (yes, we have the resources to prevent millions of deaths annually, but find it too expensive), I’m not entirely sure where we get this from in the first place. So I did a search for “what does the Bible say about the sanctity of life?” and found a list of 19 verses that are held, at least to the crowdsourced views of openbible.info, to support the concept of the sanctity of life. While they seem to affirm the God-given nature of life, that’s not the same thing as sanctity or inviolability.

The Bible most certainly affirms that human life is good, and even that life in general is good. The first chapter of the Bible describes the creation of the world, and at every stage God declares that it is good, declaring at the end that it is even very good. But note that God said that light and darkness were good, as were land and water. God declares his creation good because it is his creation, not necessarily because it is alive.

There are many verses that talk about the way that God has created human beings, knitting us in our mother’s womb, etc. Indeed, God has created us (at least indirectly), and that speaks volumes about the importance of our lives. There are also verses that talk about children as being gifts from God – as a father, I affirm this. There are verses that talk about God’s interest in our lives, that he knows everything we do and say, has counted the hairs on our heads and values us more than sparrows. This is all good and true, and shows that God values human life. But that’s not the same as holding it to be inviolable.

Because even though God created us, and gives us life, God also takes life. A lot. The Bible is full of instances where God kills people, and tells people to kill people. And death is still sad, and God even mourns, but that doesn’t stop death. God can stop death, but doesn’t. Life, to God, is a good thing, but far from inviolable. God does prohibit people from murdering each other, but the penalty for murder is death.

I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

Genesis 9:5-6

Knowing that death happens, and that it’s unfortunate and even terribly grievous, is a powerful thing. However, it does not stop God from taking lives, nor does it stop God from telling people to take other people’s lives. To help keep this in perspective, remember that even though God does not stop death, God does have the ability to give life, and plans to resurrect us all (the righteous and the wicked alike).

Where, O Death, is your victory? Where is your sting, Hades?

I want to clarify that I think that God takes death very seriously. God doesn’t say “meh, I’m going to resurrect them anyway – no big deal.” God mourns death, and even hates it, working to overturn it on a more permanent basis. It is in the first sense of sanctity, then, that I think God views life; not that it is inviolable, but that it is holy and inherently good. But there are also times in the Bible when people recognize that death may be better than life: Job notes that it would be better if he had not been born than to live with the calamity and illness he was experiencing, and several prophets (I think of Elijah and Jeremiah, off the top of my head) wished for death; Jesus tells hypocrites that it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea than to mislead children and make them into hypocrites; and for Paul “to die is gain.” Each of these are very different contexts, with Job and the prophets emphasizing the terrible nature of their current reality, Jesus revealing the unrealized yet still terrible nature of the hypocrites’ current reality (and actions); and Paul pointing to the glory of resurrected life to come. So life is not just violable, but sometimes worse than death, at least in our perceptions and sometimes even in reality.

But what of autonomy? Clemenger holds that personal autonomy has triumphed over the sanctity of life, and many argue that this is a shift toward liberal values (usually contrasted with Christian values). But what does the Bible say about autonomy?

Autonomy

A search for “what does the Bible say about autonomy” doesn’t come up with a nice list of verses like my previous search did, however misdirected those verses might have been. Instead, it comes up with scores of articles about “the horrendous sin of autonomy” and “the corrosive effects of autonomy and individualism.” These articles refer to the fact that autonomy, in the sense of choosing for ourselves, was the original sin, and that Christians subject themselves to God’s will.

What those articles miss about the “sin” of autonomy is that the sin involved as abuse of that autonomy, not the autonomy itself. God was the one who placed the forbidden fruit in the garden (for no revealed reason) and instructed Adam and Eve not to eat it, seemingly for the purpose of testing them. Human autonomy is not only God-given, but it’s crucial to fulfilling our God-given purpose as stewards of the earth. It is so important to God that we be co-creators rather than drones that God gave us the autonomy to disobey and refused to revoke it even when we disobeyed. In fact, rather than retract our autonomy in order to protect human life, God instead wiped out all life except that of Noah and his co-voyagers. At least in Genesis, God pretty explicitly values human autonomy over life.

But why does God value autonomy so highly? It has to do with the nature of love and genuine relationships. Chosen relationships are better than forced relationships, and love itself cannot be forced. God desires a loving relationship with all of creation, but human beings are (or at least appear to be) the only creatures capable of loving God back in a way that involves actively choosing to love God. Other creatures embody many features of love, such as the loyalty and devotion of our pets, but humans have the ability to direct their loyalty and devotion, in spite of everything, toward God if we so choose.

Those who say that autonomy is sinful, then, are not referring to our autonomy itself, but rather to our choice for autonomy over God. When God gives us commands to obey, we can choose to obey and thereby to love God, or we can choose not to. By choosing not to love God, we are in some sense choosing our own ability to choose over the one who gives us that ability. Theologians sometimes differentiate between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, noting that a more positive understanding of freedom is not to focus on what we are free from (which may include the will of God, should we choose to disobey), but rather to note that we are free to do the good things that God asks of us. The point of “freedom to” is that we are not coerced to be good, but we can choose it, and that choosing to do what we are asked to do is not at all the same thing as being coerced. The sin of autonomy, then, is to focus on “freedom from” without the balance of “freedom to.”

In regard to PAS, there are elements of freedom from and freedom to. People want to be free from pain, confusion, and slow but inevitable decline, and knowing that death will come sooner or later, like Job want it to come sooner. Unlike Job, most people do not experience a supernatural windfall of God’s blessing at the end of their lives, and we’ve gotten very good at prolonging the duration of people’s lives without actually enhancing or maintaining the quality of those lives – so people in chronic pain or dementia suffer longer before they die. People in those types of situations, like Jeremiah, want their suffering to end; and Christians in such situations, like Paul, look forward to a better future (and sometimes want it to hurry up). At the same time, we now have the technology to end people’s lives “safely” (that is, with no chance of screwing it up and without inflicting suffering). This allows us to control the time and method of our death. The question is, does this give us the freedom to die?

Good Question

I don’t know. I have incredible sympathy for people suffering from chronic pain, mental illness, and dementia – things that can not always be cured or even properly controlled by modern medicine. I also wonder at the wisdom of prolonging life past our ability to live well, and shake my head at the lack of proper palliative care available in Canada to help people make informed decisions with real alternatives about how their final years will go. I think we need to be clear that human beings have an inherent and inalienable right to life, but not a responsibility to live it, at least in any laws that I’m aware of in the world today.

Christians need to be careful about where our values come from: I value life, and I’m even okay with saying that life has incredible sanctity. I may even be okay with life being inviolable, I’m still working that out. But if our values are labelled Christian, they should reflect Christ and the Bible – and at least in this case, we may have gotten it wrong.