The Politics of Epiphany

In the Epiphany (the visit of the Magi, see Matthew 2), the politics must be brought out from the background in order to understand the importance of the event.

First, the politics of the nation: Herod is the king of the Jews, but Caesar is his lord. The Roman Empire’s rule of the region is reinforced by an iron fist, a situation that is sickeningly normal after centuries of rule by the Greek empires. Mary and Joseph come to visit Bethlehem not to visit relatives, but by the order of Caesar (not Herod) to be registered for a census – which is itself a tool of oppression, as it provides the basis for levying taxes and conscripting soldiers.

Into this climate of oppression, Jesus is conceived. And even before he is born, he finds no welcome in his hometown. Jewish culture placed a large emphasis on hospitality, and his family’s inability to find a place to stay is reminiscent of the story of the angels who came to visit Sodom and found only one family willing to take them in for the night. While our common conception of Jesus being born in a stable is not borne out by Scripture (the only correlation is the presence of a manger, which would likely have been present in a house anyway – even up to the industrial revolution it would not be uncommon for poorer families to share their home with their animals), nonetheless Jesus’ birth occurs in a very humble and vulnerable setting. In Sodom, a lack of hospitality served as an indication of the hearts of the inhabitants of the city, which are clearly turned against God and headed for destruction. In this context Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel, is telling: Emmanuel means “God with us”, and we think this is warm presence, but in its original context it is the sign of God’s coming judgment.

So Jesus is born king of the Jews, an oppressed people who look for a saviour-king while they suffer under an existing Jewish king who himself is a puppet of a foreign emperor. Jesus is the saviour they are waiting for, but they do not recognize him – and even when they do, they respond with incredible violence rather than rejoicing. The religious and political elites refuse to recognize, and even work to kill, God’s anointed king from his very birth. Lacking proper recognition from his own, God welcomes it from outsiders, and in so doing judges his own. And they didn’t even notice.

I wonder how many of us notice today when God uses outsiders to do the things he has called us to do. Are Christians in North America conscious of our own lack of empathy for those who do not look like us, for those of other faiths, when those other faiths and cultures outshine us at generosity and hospitality? Are we shamed by unbelievers who, despite not believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, embody his call to love and serve others? I come from a church that taught me that the Social Gospel traditions were anti-Christian because of their liberal theology, but all the while these churches have outshone us in the way that they serve the poor. And yet we continue to believe that God is only at work inside our doors, or that God works through other people only in spite of themselves, and that we are God’s only real partners.

I’m not sure that’s true. The Magi, whoever they were, were explicit in their aim to worship the king of the Jews. God spoke to them in a way that was true to their own traditions and faith, not to Judaism (which, so far as I can tell, does not have a strong tradition of astrology), and they recognized and served God in their own way, despite recognizing that he is the God of another people. God was bigger than Judaism, and was not afraid to conscript eastern astrologers to provide a proper recognition and welcome of his only son, the king of the Jews, in the absence of the hospitality and respect of his own chosen people.

So to the Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Pagans, Atheists, and more – to all of you who work hard to serve others, whether as an outcome of your own faith or without any extrinsic motivation – thank you. You challenge me, not as an adversary, but as a foil, an example. I know it can be patronizing to tell you that you are serving or embodying my God, and I don’t want to come across that way, but you do inspire me to serve and embody my God more because I see God in you and your service. To all of you wonderful Magi, I’m happy for the “competition.” 😉

Minimalism, Purpose, and Focusing on Christ

I finally took the time to check out The Minimalists podcast. It’s a long podcast (90 minutes!), and over that time I got the impression that I was hearing more or less the entire philosophy through a few particular applications, which suggests to me that I might find it repetitive if I listened to it regularly. At the same time, that also shows that they’ve boiled their philosophy down to something clear, and that they’re consistent in their application of it – which is great, because it makes it easy for me to connect it to my own life.

Their philosophy, in a nutshell, is that they want to only have things that they will use and use well; that they get more enjoyment and use out of things that are essential, that reflect their values, when their lives are not also cluttered by all sorts of other stuff that they don’t actually use or enjoy. The great thing about this philosophy is all of the ways that it connects to so many other values and philosophies I have: for example, the episode I just listened to on parenting had a lot of stuff that sounded like RIE, our favourite approach to parenting; and the regular references to Rob Bell (despite the host mentioning that he does not share Rob’s religious convictions) underscored just how much minimalism connects with Christian ethics and tradition.

What really struck me as I was introduced to the minimalist philosophy is how much it is about refining our sense of self: the process of going through our possessions and getting rid of whatever it is that is not essential to our needs, our daily life, and even our character and values, requires that we know ourselves. The process itself also helps us to know ourselves, because when we see what we do not need, or what does not fit with our values, we have a greater sense of who we are without those things.

Things have a way of not only cluttering our lives, but also of cluttering our reality and our very selves. Parting with things can be extremely difficult because of what we have invested in them: sentimental value, a sense of security, or even a sense of self. Getting rid of something, even if you haven’t looked at it or used it in years, can feel like losing yourself. If I lose my childhood teddy bear, am I losing a part of myself, my history? If I don’t have two of everything, will I be safe or prepared if I lose something? Am I defined by having the newest, coolest stuff – and who will I be if I don’t?

The more I think about this, the more I think of the early church. They obviously didn’t live in a consumerist society in the same way that we do; first century Jews, in Palestine or the diaspora, were lucky to have their basic needs met – and Christians moreso, because they were cut off from a lot of the Jewish community that otherwise would have supported them. Early Christians relied on each other in ways that we do not, and that in itself formed the basis for a lot of their community, and the context for most of the New Testament letters. But even in a context of scarcity, the early church was minimalist.

Consider the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs:

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ – Luke 10:1-8

Jesus’ instructions strike me as being profoundly minimalist, but they are not minimalist for the sake of being minimalist; rather, they reflect the focused purpose of the disciples. They are sent out into the world with nothing but their message, leaving them with no distractions from their purpose. Where the message is appreciated, their needs would be provided for; where the message was not appreciated, they were instructed to waste no more time there.

Jesus never said that it was wrong to have possessions, but when wealthy people asked him how they might enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them that they had to give their possessions away (Matthew 19:16-30). Then we see in the early church in Acts that believers “were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything that they had” (Acts 4:32). Historically, there has been conflict within the church on the interpretation of this, with some using it as evidence for a kind of Christian communism and others finding ways to dismiss it as a non-binding suggestion for happiness or spiritual enlightenment (often in the context of a defence of capitalism). But seen in the light of the original context (of scarcity), it cannot properly be seen as a mere suggestion for personal enlightenment or happiness; and seen as an expression of the focused purpose of a disciple of Christ, it cannot be seen as a compulsory rule of community (that might be applied today) so much as the basis for that community itself.

The difference between the poor community of early Christians and the wealthy West today is so drastic that it’s difficult to directly apply any “rules” about possessions that we might find in the New Testament. They shared everything they had as a way to survive and thrive as social outcasts; we are all incredibly individually wealthy by comparison, and seek minimalism as a way of finding focus and clarity and peace in a consumeristic world. In both cases, it is an orientation toward possessions that is rooted in our focused purpose and identity in Christ (along with other often neglected disciplines and virtues, such as hospitality). But even back then it was difficult to do, which is why so much of the New Testament is about people looking to Jesus and his coming Kingdom as the example and reminder of who they are becoming. For example:

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3

Minimalism, in and of itself, is a useful discipline to help us have focus. But it is also a natural outcome of discipleship, if we are willing (as the rich young ruler was not) to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. God is calling us to the kind of focused purpose that puts all other considerations second to the goal of embodying Christ and his Kingdom, to the type of life in which we do not let any material possessions clutter our houses, our lives, our purpose, and our identity. In a society and economy focused on consuming, this is the most counter-cultural (and difficult) part of Christian discipleship.

Seeing it as something difficult that we’re called to do is not particularly encouraging, so it’s important to see the benefits of this kind of minimalism: in a sense, it can serve as a gateway to better living out other values. For example:

  1. Giving away items we don’t need helps us develop the virtue of charity;
  2. Becoming more aware of our own needs helps us to become more aware of the needs of others;
  3. Living outside of a secure state of self-sufficiency leads us to share more with others, building a community of sharing;
  4. Reducing the things we own and do to just the things that we value most can revive traditional skills and communities, such as food preparation and preservation, repairing items, gardening, etc. – things that we can do rather than buy;
  5. Reducing the things we buy and keep helps us to be better stewards of our finances, which ultimately belong to God, and help us to be more aware of God’s providence;
  6. Similarly, minimalism helps us to lower our footprint on the planet, living lightly as better stewards of the earth and seeing how that duty is central to our identity and purpose as human beings and Christians;
  7. Having a stronger focus on the things we really value, and forming communities around charity and sharing, and having a greater sense of our role as stewards of the earth, also helps orient us to be respectful toward other people; showing restraint in the things we buy helps us to show restraint in how we respond to others; etc.

So don’t treat minimalism as an all-or-nothing requirement of Christianity, as if you’re the rich young ruler trying to prove himself to Jesus; like him, I’m pretty sure we’d all walk away under that mindset. Rather, see it as a gateway to greater clarity in your life, your identity, and your purpose as a follower of Jesus, and a practice that supports and enables other virtues to grow and flourish. And look to Jesus, constantly, to renew your sense of purpose and identity: behold what you are, become what you receive.

For other help and ideas, check out The Minimalists podcast, blog, documentary, books, etc.

Confronting Christian Hypocrisy

Trump.

It was funny when he entered the race, ridiculous when he got his first Evangelical endorsement, outrageous when they kept coming in, shocking when so-called Christian leaders (apply the so-called to either term) defended his vitriol while he was popular, and downright shameful when, over the last several hours as scores of prominent Republicans abandon any pretence of supporting him, the Christians stand by him.

I feel sick, but I’m also angry. I want to look Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, James Dobson, etc. in the eye and say “That’s it, we’re pulling your card. Your claim to Christianity is revoked, you no longer have any right to identify with Christ.” But I can’t, because it doesn’t work that way. At the same time, I can and must call them out. Christians live with the call to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness, as well as the call to challenge injustice and expose hypocrisy. Doing them both at the same time is really hard, but it helps if we understand the situation.

Powers

When the Nazis came to power in a Christian country (yes, Germany was officially a Christian country), and ultimately when the holocaust occurred there, Carl Jung (famed German psychotherapist) described it as a type of “mass possession.” Why would so many otherwise decent people go along with such an awful regime doing such horrifying things? We are susceptible to something unseen, that thing that turns a large group of happy sports fans into a rioting mob, suddenly breaking windows and burning cars. That thing that causes otherwise stingy people to give to charities during disaster relief, leading to record amounts given; or that leads to people who haven’t watched a baseball game in their life suddenly wearing a Jays hat in public.

We’ve long known that we are susceptible to peer pressure, trends, etc., but in some cases even a rational modernist like Carl Jung resorts to religious language of “possession.” These invisible forces not only influence us, but they cause us to do things that we would not otherwise do, even things that go against our own values, and deafen us to the dissonance. Theologians throughout the 20th century picked up on this, and connected it to Paul’s language of the Powers and Principalities.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

This kind of language points us to a struggle that is both internal (psychological, involving our will and virtues/vices) and external (social, involving social institutions). In both cases it is a struggle to maintain our freedom against a force that would overcome our very self.

Here’s the thing though: we make the Powers. Think about it: we elect a government, and we grant that government authority over us by consenting to its use of power. Walter Wink, the latest major theologian to write on the Powers, describes them as an emergent spiritual property that arises from groups of people who form social institutions, formally or informally. The Powers are social institutions, but they are also spiritual forces that exercise influence over us – often even more than we have over them! Long-standing major institutions, like governments or political parties or cultural institutions (like the Religious Right) are very powerful forces that demand a lot from their followers, including deep loyalty and obedience – whether they state it explicitly or not.

Walter Wink

Walter Wink

There are two points we can take out of this to apply to Evangelicals who support Trump despite his obviously unrepentant sinfulness and demagoguery:

First, these people are caught up in something that they can’t control. Actually. Which is at least partially why leaders who scorned Trump as a buffoon during the nomination contest later endorsed him wholeheartedly. Sure, we could be cynical and say that they’re all faking it – but you can only say something so many times before you begin to believe it, and I really do think that these people believe what they say about Trump. Surely he believes what he says about himself. (I think Trump is caught up in this spiritual quagmire along with everyone else.)

Second, the Powers we’re talking about are the US government and the two major political parties. Even for non-Americans, we’re pretty much all involved in this. We are a part of this system, part of the group from which the spiritual Power emerges and over which it exudes influence. We are all complicit. Which is why we can’t just point fingers at the most grievous hypocrites and be done with it. We have to follow what Wink called “Jesus’ Third Way” – neither winning nor losing, but instead reconciling.

Solidarity with Christ

The thing about Jesus is that he managed to maintain solidarity with everyone. Not only did he refuse to get involved in partisan squabbling, religious or political, but he also lived and died with and for people in every station. He lived among the poor, and yet still moved among the rich. He died as an innocent victim, in solidarity with all victims; and yet he died a criminal’s death, in solidarity with criminals. We too are called to identify ourselves with the oppressed and criminals, saints and sinners.

Following Christ involves looking first at ourselves – because we are the criminals. As I said above, we are all complicit in this broken system that victimizes people. In that regard we also have to look at how this broken system hurts everyone involved: we are the victims AND the perpetrators, and so we need to recognize that those we tend to see as being the perpetrators are also victims, just like us. Recognizing that we’re all both perpetrator and victim gives us a solid base for solidarity. Because we cannot have real solidarity with Christ if we do not have solidarity with those with and for whom he lived and died.

Blind Guides

Naming the Powers, bringing them into the light to expose their injustice, is a painful process. After all, we’ve just established that it means looking inward and recognizing our complicity! But that also forms the basis for addressing injustice without becoming hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is the one thing Jesus refused to put up with, and he was in a position to tell it like it is. He addressed the Powers that ruled his world, refused to be complicit in them, and then called out those who blindly continued in their complicity but claimed to know better. We absolutely must address the hypocrisy among us, first in our very selves, and then in our brothers and sisters.

Tonight, James Dobson, who righteously condemned Bill Clinton’s sin of adultery after Clinton came clean and publicly repented, urged Christians to forgive Donald Trump for his sins (despite a non-apology) by way of voting for him. Rachel Held Evans tweeted that this is spiritual abuse, and she’s damn right about that. Should we forgive Trump? Sure. Trust him to represent the interests of women and people of colour? Absolutely not. Using Christian obligation to forgive as a way of directing voters is an egregious abuse of power, of the name of Christ, and of the people who trust you. Dr. Dobson, you are a blind guide, a white-washed tomb, and you need to repent.

That said, you’re always welcome among us. Not over us, but certainly among us. Because like it or not, we’re in this together. I will not follow you, but I hope you’ll join me as we follow Christ together.

The Church’s Mandate

American Christians are more political than just about any people on earth, and I actually think that’s a pretty good thing, so long as it’s well directed. The Church has a political mandate, but it has nothing to do with voting for a particular party or exercising cultural control.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was probably the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. He was also hung by the Nazis. One of the things he was working on when he died was an essay on the Divine Mandates, which he named as Work/Culture, Government, Family, and Church. Each of these aspects of life is given a mandate by God, a reason for being, and they must all stay in balance with each other. Whenever one of them takes control of the others, the result is an idolatrous Power (using the language above).

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can't figure out how he doesn't see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can’t figure out how he doesn’t see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Each Mandate has its function in society. For example, Government is supposed to keep society safe and ordered, but it should not take on the role of Family (e.g., what kind of society would put all children in government care rather than their parents?). The Mandate of Church is to keep the other Mandates in line, either by using our prophetic voice to signal when one Mandate is over-reaching, or by standing in the gap for Mandates that are being subordinated or are failing to do their duties. For example, when a family breaks down, the Church provides a home and family care; when Work is unavailable, the Church provides food and necessities; and when Government breaks down, the Church provides social services. None of these things are the sole responsibility of the Church, but the Church can be a surrogate to meet needs neglected by the proper Mandates. And the Church is mandated to cry out at injustice and expose the Mandates that exercise their power inappropriately.

Right now in America, the Mandate of Church (in the form of right-wing Evangelicals) is in a very strange position. First, it has attempted to usurp both Government and Culture (via the Religious Right), and has melded with Government (via the Republican Party). As such, it has completely undermined its own prophetic voice, making it unable to expose the systemic injustices of the institutions it has aligned with – or the personal injustices of its candidate. To illustrate how deep this complicity goes, consider this: even as many high-profile Republicans have denounced Trump over the last 24 hours, Evangelical “leaders” have stood by him and glossed over his disgusting, self-centred misogyny. Evangelical Christians are more committed to the Republican Party than the Republican Party is.

That’s demonic. That’s idolatrous. That absolutely has to stop. We’ve lost our way.

Repent

Jesus Christ and his followers have a crucial role to play in our politics. Our job is to see the Powers for what they are, to reduce our own complicity as much as possible, and to raise a prophetic voice against systemic injustice. We need to keep our heads and resist the “mass possession” that has led so many to support a man who is the antithesis of Christ. And we need to call on our supposed leaders who have become blind to their own complicity to repent, and do so with the solidarity of Christ.

If we can do that, the rest of this election season will look very different. I’d like to see that.

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.

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?

Neither A Liberal Nor A Conservative Be

I should start by pointing out that I largely reject the terms “liberal” and “conservative”. I think that they are terribly vague terms whose highly nuanced meanings evolve so quickly that most of the time when two people use them in discussion they each have very different assumptions about what they mean at all. But they’re also terribly common terms, and it’s difficult to avoid them. I’ll leave their precise meaning up to you, as most of the time I’ll be focusing on the many things in their semantic range that do not apply to me.

You see, I always thought that I was a conservative.

The first church I really remember was Baptist, I don’t know what kind for sure. Fellowship, maybe. Then I went to a Christian Missionary Alliance church, and eventually a Pentecostal church, all the while knowing very little about the differences between them (if there were any), but knowing that they were different from the “liberal” churches – you know, the United Church, and by association any liturgical churches that weren’t Catholic. (I didn’t know where the Catholics fit in the liberal-conservative divide, but I was pretty sure that they weren’t on the field at all.) Anyway, all of my music and movies had to be approved by Focus on the Family (Plugged In), liberals were undermining the moral foundations of society and didn’t even believe in Jesus (yes, even the Christian liberals didn’t believe in Jesus), and even though we didn’t use the term much I knew through and through that I was conservative.

When I was 18 I voted Conservative. I voted for Darrel Stinson, who wore a cowboy hat and sometimes yelled in the House of Commons. He was there to remind all of those Liberals back east that the West (with a capital W) wouldn’t be pushed around, or at least that’s how I saw it – he’d been my MP since I was 9, and all I really knew is that he stood up for us. I’d heard talk of the western provinces seceding, along with Washington and Oregon, and making a new country, and that sounded alright to me because by the time we even get to vote out here the Liberals in Ontario and Quebec have already decided the election.

Looking back, my family didn’t talk politics and rarely talked religion. We didn’t use the word “conservative” at all, but I remember other people talking about “liberals”, and I sure knew that wasn’t us (for all I knew of my parent’s politics or theology).

Then I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, and learned that there were two ways to apply the terms “liberal” and “conservative” – politically (which I knew) and theologically. There was a tremendous amount of overlap between those two realms, it seemed, but I became focused on theology, and it was more clear than ever that I was a conservative: liberals don’t believe that Jesus existed in a literal sense OR that God created the world in six days in a literal sense or even (or perhaps especially) in pre-tribulation, premillennial eschatology.

As I progressed in my studies I learned that there was a lot of nuance in all of these things, and my views around them shifted tremendously, gaining depth and changing in perspective. Some of them I discarded altogether, but I never doubted that I was a conservative; once again, my conservatism was assumed rather than stated. I had heard about an exciting theologian, whom some had labelled as a “liberal”, named Brian McLaren. When I asked the president of my school about him, he snorted: “he’s a heretic.” That was all. So while I now had nuanced views of eschatology (I was pretty close to fully adopting an amillennial perspective in spite of the premillennial views of my denomination), creation (I was an Intelligent Design guy at that point), and I wasn’t fully sure that Jonah was an actual guy, I knew I wasn’t a heretic, so therefore I couldn’t be a liberal. I had been wondering for a little while, but with that snort my status as a conservative was assured.

Then I went to an evangelical Seminary, where I was taught by Anglicans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Reformers, Pentecostals, and Evangelical-Free-ers, and talked theology around the water cooler with Pentecostals (even an American!), Evangelical Covenant-ers, Mennonites of several varieties, Anglicans, a Catholic, and even a Lutheran or two. I no longer had any assumptions about which denominations were conservative, because we were all at an evangelical Seminary – clearly we were all conservatives. Not that we used those terms, but again, this was part of my largely unexamined self-concept. I still knew that the United Church didn’t really believe in Jesus, and though I now had a stronger sense of the theological traditions that brought them there, I still knew that wasn’t for me. Though I was now certain that Jonah was a work of theatre, the primeval prologue of Genesis was written in the genre of myth and Adam and Eve were merely representative of early humanity and probably not real people, the conquest of Canaan probably didn’t happen anything like it was recorded in Joshua, Jesus wasn’t a teetotaler, Revelation is largely representative of the genre of apocalypse and is not predicting the future, and Hebrews wasn’t even written by Paul – still, I knew I was a conservative.

But in my first year of seminary I took a course in Christian Ethics, and was hooked. The course texts were by John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Ethics), and they helped draw out my Pentecostal pragmatism: I realized just how important it was to me that theology mean something, and by mean something I mean take up space in the world. The rubber always has to meet the road if you want it to take you anywhere, and I wanted to ride good theology to the New Jerusalem – Jesus, B., and me on a road trip through life, the universe, and everything. So I became intensely interested in the texts that tell us what to do, and the implications of the texts that only hint at it: how should we then live? I became more and more politically engaged, and took a course in sociology. I started an annual social justice fair, debated about globalization and capitalism, and gradually became aware that although I was clearly still theologically conservative (but not a fundamentalist any longer), politically…

…I was a liberal. *Gasp* A flaming liberal! When did that happen?

Of course, I wasn’t a big L Liberal, as in the Liberal Party of Canada. I knew enough about political and economic history at this point to know that the LPC is both socially and economically liberal, while the Conservative Party of Canada has a reputation for being both socially and economically conservative but is actually economically neo-liberal and socially doing nothing at all. I was always attracted to the Green Party, probably because of their pragmatism and their refusal to play the liberal-conservative game. When I ran for the Greens in 2015 I maintained the line that we’re a fiscally conservative party, not only because it’s true and because the word “liberal” in my riding is a cussword (it’s a good Christian riding, after all), but also because I still have a self-concept that includes being conservative, for whatever reason, even though I no longer believe the term means much of anything at all.

Which is my point. How can it be that conservative Bible study led me to so many so-called liberal beliefs? I still believe in the Bible as being authoritative, though not handed down from the sky, and I believe that Jesus Christ is not only a real person but that he’s the son of God, a member of the holy trinity, and alive today. It is that belief and his teachings that inspire my interest in ethics and politics, and my so-called liberal political views stem directly from my understanding of Scripture and my pragmatic understanding of the best ways to go about accomplishing the ethical demands of Christ.

What does it mean that I can hold conservative and liberal views, both theologically and politically, at the same time – and even have them be inspired by each other? I’m fiscally conservative because I believe that the government needs to have its house in order if it’s going to be able to sustainably maintain the welfare state; and I believe in the welfare state because it is an effective way for us to collectively serve the poor and promote justice, which I learned to do from Jesus’ teachings and I take seriously because I believe he’s really real. Given the polarization between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, both in the church and in politics, you’d think my head would explode.

The terms “liberal” and “conservative” have maintained their popularity because they’re handy umbrella terms: they cover a lot of ground. That makes them useful, so long as we don’t care about nuance or accuracy and don’t mind lumping things together. Mostly, they’re useful as umbrella terms for everything we disagree with someone else about; it’s tribalism in a neat package, and we’ve found ways to distort the meaning of those terms by throwing in all sorts of other things we don’t agree with, or finding a new sense of the word by applying it in a new or more nuanced way, which of course only makes the whole thing more confusing.

Let’s just stop. Rather than insisting on calling people, or ourselves, “liberals” or “conservatives”, let’s use words that are actually descriptive of what we do believe. We might discover that our views aren’t that different from others, or that the heroes we’ve claimed (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis are both often claimed by evangelicals) have many views that we would ordinarily dismiss. But perhaps more than anything else, we might discover that other people’s ideas are not as dangerous as the labels we place on them, and that maybe serving Jesus together is more important than agreeing with each other.

Marriage and the Grace of God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional, legalizing gay marriage throughout the US. I live in Canada, and have only a handful of friends from the US, but even so my Facebook feed was very polarized over the weekend: most of it was rainbow-coloured, thanks to Facebook’s feature that enabled users to put a rainbow filter over their profile picture in celebration of the ruling, and using the message “love wins”; but there seemed to be almost as many people posting articles and memes featuring various conservative Christian leaders decrying the SCOTUS decision and its popular support, or even writing their own comments reminding their Christian friends that as Christians they “cannot support this.”

This leads me to two thoughts. The first thought is “we don’t need to support this.” This was a Supreme Court decision about constitutionality, not the result of a referendum (as happened recently in Ireland). Many of the comments and memes make it seem like people believe that this signals a shift in public opinion, as if suddenly US citizens became much more gay-friendly overnight. In reality, most of those people with rainbow-coloured profile pics were already gay-friendly. I think many people were surprised to see just how much support for this there actually was, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is not a reflection of that support, this is a ruling on constitutionality. (It has also been noted elsewhere that many people don’t seem to realize that Canada has had legal gay marriages for a decade already.)

The second thought, far more important than the first, is that we should support this. We should support this because Jesus would support this. Allow me to explain.

So far as I can tell, marriage has always been idealized. Most of the debate coming from Christians against gay marriage has been about the definition of marriage (I know the arguments well, as I used to make them frequently). But the idealized Christian notion of marriage has always been tainted: patriarchy, divorce, abuse, adultery, childlessness and infertility, etc., have always undermined the ideal. It does not logically follow that the imperfection of marriage in general means that we should endorse marriages that are obviously imperfect from the outset, but oddly enough, that’s what Jesus does.

In Jesus’ day, marriage was largely a financial transaction in which one man would pay another man for his daughter, so that she could produce children for him. Some dowry systems required that the groom paid the father; other dowry systems required that the father pay the groom for taking his daughter off of his hands. This all had to do with the economics of poor agricultural societies in which families were the primary unit of work and productivity, but in a heavily patriarchal society, it’s still just thinly veiled slavery. A daughter received no education, no birthright or inheritance (unless she had absolutely no brothers), no say in matters of the community (unless she was a prophetess), no share in the priesthood and a lesser space in worship, no control over her own sexuality or fertility or body in any meaningful sense, and no choice over who she married. Legally, an unmarried woman who was raped was supposed to be married to her rapist; this was even an act of mercy, because an unmarried woman who was not a virgin would never find a husband willing to pay to marry her, which would leave her destitute, probably working as a beggar or prostitute (for a look at how desperate this situation was, read Ruth). Polygamy was surprisingly common, too. Women were unable to initiate a divorce from their husbands, but a man could divorce his wife for any reason he wanted; some rabbis in Jesus’ day insisted that burnt dinner was sufficient cause for divorce. While the law said that both the man and woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death, in practice the man could often get away with it while the woman would still be killed (unless Jesus was there to draw a line in the sand and say “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”). And women were often married off to much older men: some scholars believe that Jesus’ mother Mary was probably about 13, while Joseph was probably in his thirties or older.

This kind of marriage is far from our ideal today, in which marriage is a result and expression of love and personal devotion. This kind of marriage seems gross, barbaric, even a form of domination. Our society has outlawed almost every aspect of this kind of marriage, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that this wasn’t what God had in mind when he created Adam and Eve and said they’d be one flesh together.

Even so, a wedding was one of the greatest celebrations in Jewish culture. It would often go on for days, include the whole community and as many family as could attend, and involved drinking a lot of wine in celebration. Love was not the purpose of weddings back then, but it was a blessing bestowed on the couple, that they would love one another and be fruitful and multiply and find rest and peace together. The marriage ideal that we hold now as a pre-requisite for marriage, back then was just a wish and a blessing, the ideal that people hoped marriage would turn into over time. There was an understanding that marriage wasn’t a perfect thing, but that it could become perfect if the people involved in it devoted themselves to each other. Marriage was not the zenith of a perfect society, it was a means of God’s grace in a broken one.

We can see this in the way that marriage is used as a metaphor for God and his people. Much is often made of the Christological interpretation of Song of Songs, which is essentially erotic poetry about enjoying love, but the main place that the Bible uses marriage as a metaphor for God and his people is in Hosea. God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute who repeatedly runs away from him and continues to ply her trade, and says that this is the way that God was married to Israel. Hosea always takes her back, and pursues her, even as she runs away. All he wants is for her to remain in the security and providence of their family, and finally to love him and their children. Hosea’s persistence in following his prostitute-bride is God’s grace on his people Israel. Marriage is not a perfect union, but rather an image of God’s grace, and a means by which we can experience that grace and understand God’s providence.

In the New Testament, the marriage metaphor continues – except that now the metaphor is that Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride; and Christ is the exemplar for husbands, who should give themselves up for their wives (rather than dominate them, as they had every legal right to do). Wives who become Christians are urged to stay with their unbelieving husbands (who continue to have almost total control over them, by the way), so that their good example might win their husbands over, i.e., so that their marriage might redeem their family, and their presence within that marriage might function as a vessel for God’s grace on an unbelieving spouse in an imperfect society. Paul says that being married is a wonderful burden, but if you can be like Christ without getting married, you’re even better off.

When Jesus performed miracles, it was expressly to lend the authority of God to his teachings and actions. Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John was to create extra wine for a wedding he was attending (yes, even after everyone was already drunk). His presence at a wedding could be seen as an endorsement of the practice, but his catering of it by divine miracle can be read no other way. And the wedding that Jesus endorsed was just like any other in his day: an economic transaction, an imperfect institution of a patriarchal culture that gave one person license to dominate another, license for an old man to have sex with a young girl…and a way that God shows grace to his people, an incubator in which people can show grace to one another and become more like Christ, and a way by which, we hope, people can love each other more.

So if we’re concerned that a gay marriage is incorrect, imperfect, even sinful – well, it fits right in with marriage through the ages. It’s a way for gay and lesbian people to foster deeper love and grace for one another within a broken world, in spite of any imperfections and sins they may have and will continue to have. It is not a sacralization of sin – it’s not about sin at all; rather, it is an opportunity for love and family to grow in the midst of and despite a sinful world, and therefore a means of God’s grace to the world.

So if we ask the perennial Evangelical question of What Would Jesus Do in response to the legalization of gay marriage, I’d say he’d probably bring the wine.

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese