February 23

Delusions and Devotion to Doctrinal Positions

What is true of delusional people tends to be true of all of us, just not so much.

One of the first things that is taught clinicians who will be working with delusion disorders is critical: do not argue with people about their delusions: it only causes them to become more committed to and invested in the delusion.

So-called normal people are prone to such defensive commitment, too, but not to the point of psychosis.  For Christians, the threat is not a loss of touch with reality but a loss of touch with truth.  Or at least the loss of the possibility of discerning a different perspective on truth.  Think Occam’s Razor.

Like the delusional person, the more we argue in defense of our own position – and the more we argue against the opposing positions of others – the more emotionally invested we become in our position.  The more persecuted we feel, the more convinced we are of the truth of our stance.  And, sometimes, the more superior we feel to the Neanderthals who stand against us.

The questions surrounding Gen 1-2 have brought this to mind.  My discussion post – now dying and suffering the indignity of nary a comment – was an attempt to see if people would change their own position if they were to find that a different, even more satisfying position were available.  The different perspective or approach would preserve the essence of each of the existing positions.

Some might say I’m too negative about the nature of man but sixty-three years of life, thirty-eight years of being a believer, and twenty-eight years of doing clinical work with believers and unbelievers alike – has led me to a position I call realism.

Christians are good about the “list” sins but not always so good about the subtle and insidious sins that attach themselves to our best intentions.  This happens with doctrinal beliefs.  Like hobbits, we enjoy books and articles clearly laid out that tell us what we already know and believe.  Arguments and beliefs that are contrary to our own are usually brushed aside with some type of ad hominem fallacy: s/he is a Calvinist or not a Calvinist, a Dispensationalist or not, Orthodox or not.  This allows us to dismiss the arguments without giving them a fair and open-minded hearing first.

I sometimes tell people that when I first went to seminary, I held my beliefs and positions in a clenched fist. When I finished, however, I held the same beliefs in an open hand.  I was still firmly committed but I had also learned to entertain – daily – the very real possibility that I could be mistaken.

Not exactly wrong but mistaken.  I was right but I didn’t have all the information that might allow me to come to a similar but broader conclusion.  I’ve spent years studying in order to understand the arguments of other positions – e.g., Covenant Theology or Young Earth Creationism – and respect those who have studied the matter and come to a reasoned conclusion that is different than my own.  I also understand the weaknesses of my own beliefs and the arguments that can be brought against them.

Personally, I hold to a literal reading and interpretation of Gen 1-2 but also accept and incorporate findings from the sciences that posit a very old earth and an expanding (or is it contracting now?) universe.  I did this through a lot of reading but primarily I was able to do it because I wasn’t married to my understanding of any particular position – even though I had thought some of my earlier positions were “God’s Truth.”  With a capital “T.”

There could be a lot more peace and harmony, a lot less conflict and division, if we would accept positions that are tenable from both a literal reading of Scripture as well as the findings of science at its current state. It would require some humility and backtracking, perhaps, along with some apologies where needed, but it would also allow us to be done with peripheral and tangential disputes and to get on with the business of making disciples and spreading shalom throughout the earth.

February 18

Thinking about Morality

I read Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Lila) for mainly heuristic purposes: he makes me think.  While I thoroughly enjoy his analyses of various subjects, I stop short when it comes to his attempts to come up with his own philosophical solution to life’s problems and enigmas. 

Gleaning from his arguments in Lila, I have been thinking about morality: its facets and bases.  His construct is something he calls “The Metaphysics of Quality,” a concept that I find less than compelling or adequate.  (It borrows heavily from Plato’s notions of the “Good” and “Forms.”)  My own belief is that the Christian scriptures are both sufficient and necessary for a comprehensible, comprehensive, and practical governance of life.

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What is morality?  Robert Pirsig sees it as multifaceted, consisting of four unrelated types.  The first and most basic is Inorganic Morality, which is largely made up of what we call the “laws of nature.”  The patterns of inorganic nature – weather, plate tectonics, gravity, physics in general – make up this category.

A second and higher form is Biological Morality, which Pirsig likens to the “law of the jungle.”  This includes the survival of the fittest, reproduction of both fauna and flora, and life and death.

Third is Social Morality.  This involves the norms determined by each society, the laws that maintain a semblance of order and productivity necessary for the functioning of the culture.

Fourth, there is Intellectual Morality.  This involves what “should be” rather than just what is or what works.  Its basis may be in the philosophical conclusions of intellectuals or the sacred writings of various cultures.  Intellectual Morality, ideally, trumps all other forms of morality.

Pirsig, who is spiritual but not Christian, states that Intellectual Morality “still struggles in its attempts to control society.”  I would argue to the contrary that Intellectual Morality has governed various societies in the past but is now being abandoned for a lesser morality (in terms of universal application and what is true to human existence).  The lesser forms may be philosophical (i.e., an inadequate Intellectual Morality), based on esoteric or fantasized belief, or societal morality.  The latter is especially true in the United States where the sole contribution to the sphere of philosophy – Pragmatism – guides and directs us far too frequently.

Applying his own version of Intellectual Morality – for which he uses the synonymous phrase “evolutionary morality” – to the issue of capital punishment, Pirsig writes:

[I]f an established social structure is not seriously threatened by a criminal, then an evolutionary morality would argue that there is no moral justification for killing him.

What makes killing him immoral is that a criminal is not just a biological organism.  He is not even just a defective unit of society.  Whenever you kill a human being you are killing a source of thought too.  A human being is a collection of ideas, and these ideas take moral precedence over a society.  Ideas are patterns of value.  They are at a higher level of evolution than social patterns of value.  Just as it is more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than a patient, so it is more moral for an idea to kill a society than it is for a society to kill an idea.

What Pirsig does not explain is just how “serious” a threat would have to be to warrant killing the criminal.  How is that determined?  More critically, who decides what constitutes sufficient warrant?  Lacking an absolute standard or explanation of morality and values, Intellectually Morality becomes a potentially dangerous weapon in the hands of those who possess sufficient power.

It is at this point that the value of God’s revelation of his moral will – given in the Bible – becomes supra-moral or supra-valuable: Scripture is the Ultimate Metaphysic, resting as it does on the character and nature of God.  An unassailable, external determination and foundation for moral decision making is required if Intellectual Morality is to be anything other than a standard that changes according to the ebb and flow of the intellectual elite – i.e., those who are either in power (as with Plato’s philosopher kings) or have the ears and imaginations of those who wield power (as with Hitler’s utilization of Nietzsche for his pogroms).

In the case of what warrants capital punishment, the Christian Scriptures are essentially clear.  The principles of the Old Testament as expanded and tempered by the teachings of the New Testament provide sufficient and necessary standards that can be followed and applied to the issue of capital punishment as well as all others.  And the same standard that governs capital punishment also provides instruction on related matters such as abortion: if the individual presents an actual (not merely potential) threat to the biological life of another, then capital punishment is warranted.

If Christianity is going to be once again considered as a viable basis for morality and ethics, however, it will first need to be made intellectually acceptable to those who are not believers.  The intrinsic superiority of a Christian Intellectual Morality will have to be argued and demonstrated on various fronts.  Preceding that, though, is the necessary elimination or significant reduction of the present campaigns, crusades, and foci that tend to make Christianity appear irrelevant, archaic, punitive, and distasteful.  I think the former will be far easier to accomplish than the latter.

But that is another post for another time.

February 10

Finding Freedom in Unacceptable Places

Freedom has always been a big deal for me, going back to when I was a boy and sought a quiet freedom along riverbanks and in deep woods.  Freedom was escape for me then; it remains so even today, though half a century or more has passed.  I don’t mean a freedom to do wrong things but simply a freedom to be who I am.  Or who I was meant to become.

One of the first verses that I latched onto after my salvation is Jn 8.32: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Jesus, whose words these are, is talking to believing Jews at this point, telling that them if they continue in his word, they will made free.

Becoming a Christian and seizing upon this verse, I believed that at long last I had found real and true freedom. And I had.  I did not realize how difficult it would be to remain free, however, and would find myself imprisoned time and time again.

To say I was naive when I believed is to say too little:  I had been naive most of my life prior to my conversion and remained so for decades after.  My idealism or romanticism or whatever shielded my sight led me to believe that everyone else would be as enthralled to find and practice freedom as I was.  Who would want to return to some sort of bondage or imprisonment after freedom came?

As I said, I was naive.

People seem to like rules and restrictions.  I don’t mean the kind of rules and restrictions that are for our own good – like no adultery, no lying, to gossiping.  I mean the kind that keeps us from doing, saying, believing, or thinking things that are permissible within the realm of God.  Good things.  Things that have their ultimate source in God.

I have realized only recently that I have been walking a spiritual tightrope for most of my Christian life, ever fearful of falling off to what could only be my final ruin. The threat for me has never been primarily behavior (although I certainly struggle with behavioral sins just like everyone else).  My chief threat has always been in the sphere of thinking or believing things that don’t necessarily fall within the limitations of the evangelical, orthodox subculture.

I read a lot of books and have a lot of thoughts about things.  Some, if not most, of those thoughts are within the pale of biblical truth, if not always within orthodoxy.  But that last phrase begs the question by assuming a universal agreement on what constitutes orthodoxy.  What exactly is this assumed orthodox standard to which we are compelled to follow?

That depends not so much on who’s asking but on who’s answering.  A Methodist will give a different answer than a Baptist, and a Reformed individual will be at odds with a Charismatic Christian.  Orthodoxy, it seems, is drawn from Scripture but then specifically trimmed and tailored to whatever group you’re in.  To be seen as orthodox requires you to know what is expected and then to become (or to pretend as though you’re) firmly committed to that standard.

My reading has taken me far afield at times but never to the point of having the essence of my faith and belief challenged.  I think Martin Buber is on to something with his view on I-Thou and I-It relationships.  But I don’t drink the Kool-Aid.  And I find quantum physics and mechanics very interesting, but it doesn’t shake my faith in Jesus Christ as the Creator and Sustainer of all things.  I’ve always believed that Christian truth can not just withstand close scrutiny but actually grow and deepen when carefully examined.

But most people are having a tough enough time staying on the evangelically-defined tightrope and don’t like anyone to come along who might create a gust of wind or somehow shake the rope – which is what I tend to do.  My creed for life is, “Comforting the disturbed; disturbing the comfortable.”

That usually results in being marginalized within evangelical groups that produce and maintain the tightropes.  They too often assume that I’ve fallen off and am now hoping to pull down as many as possible as I go, much like the Balrog pulled Gandalf into Khazad-Dûm.  That’s wrong.  Completely wrong.

I have indeed left the tightrope, not so much having fallen as simply stepped off.  And I discovered, to my sheer joy, that I have not fallen but have been able to fly.  Not literally, of course, but intellectually and emotionally.  Finally I have found the freedom Jesus was describing in Jn 8.32.  It is exhilarating.  It is grace and truth; truth and love.  “10 Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed!”

It is not a freedom to sin – or even to be completely free from sin – but rather a freedom to explore all of God’s creation and truth without fear of losing Him, my faith, or anything else.  With the exception of most guardians of the evangelical church.  Like the Pharisees of old, although certainly not with the same dire consequences, too many church shepherds have burdened their flock with unnecessary burdens.  They unintentionally – am I being naive again? – cripple the sheep to keep them from straying.

At some point, it is no longer necessary to guard the flock so closely.  Make no mistake: churches do need to “make disciples,” i.e., to teach Christians what they need to know to become independently dependent on Christ.  Not to the exclusion of needing  fellowship and Christian community, but to the point where walking a tightrope is no longer thought of as following Christ.

Freedom is meant for all Christians, not just a select few.  It does not take years and years of seminary to be free; it does take sufficient training in all things true.  But, to borrow from Pink Floyd, pastors do not need to forever keep people under their wings, where they won’t let you fly but they might let you sing.

More importantly, people don’t have to stay there.  They need to be prepared but, at some point, they need just to step off the tightrope.  Or maybe be pushed.