Monday, June 23, 2008

Arrival

He who thinks that he is finished is finished. How true.
Those who think that they have arrived, have lost their way.
Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it.
Those who think they are saints, are demons.

-Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fatalism

Getting back to my study of Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity, one point of his that I found very interesting was his discussion of the ways that Christian thought has been influenced by Islam. Ellul never blames Islam for any of the ways that the church has departed from its biblical roots, but he does demonstrate how interactions between the two religions inspired Christian theologians to incorporate certain Islamic concepts into their thinking.

The most obvious of these ideas is the concept of "holy war," an idea that had previously been foreign to Christian thought. Prior to the Crusades, the church had used its influence to discourage armed conflict. Forced conversions may not have been unheard of before Christianity's first contact with Islam, but they weren't as common as they became.

Another concept that's less obviously a product of Islamic thought is that of submission. It's important to note that there is a distinction between obedience and submission; submission goes much further than obedience and leads to a fatalistic mindset within which freedom exists only as something to be surrendered in favor of being saved from eternal torment.

While some Christian traditions have a looser definition of submission than others, most agree that God has a plan for every step that a person takes through life, and that this perfect plan can be fully discerned from the unchanging, universal commands that the Bible exists to provide us. Only in "liberal" circles does the Holy Spirit's guidance serve any real purpose other than to steer us (or to help us steer others) back to that set of all-encompassing rules.

Islam means submission (to God's will). Just as mystics negate themselves to give place to God, so Muslims have the same religious orientation. Not just obedience but submission is involved. At a first glance this seems to be in full conformity with the biblical revelation. We know how important a role is played in current piety by the formula mektoub, it was written. We have to submit to the sovereign, preexistent, eternal, and immutable will of God. All history, all the events of history, all the things that come to pass in each individual life have already been decreed and fixed in advance and written by God.

In reality this is the very reverse of what we are told about the biblical God, who opens up freedom for us, who lets us make our own history, who goes with us on the more or less unheard-of adventures that we concoct. This God is not "providence" (which is never a biblical word). He is never a determinative cause or an irreducible conductor of events.

The biblical God is he who unceasingly reestablishes our human liberty when we keep falling into bondage. He unceasingly enters into dialogue with us, but only so as to warn us about what is good, to set us on guard, to associate us with his will; never to force us. Here again the tendency to believe in a God who because he is omnipotent is also omniscient (which presupposes that everything is already said) was already present in Christian thinking when it was invaded by certain elements in Greek thought. Yet at first the themes of salvation and love were always dominant. I believe that it was the strictness of Muslim piety that really led Christians along this path.

If we make God's omnipotence dominant over his love and autonomy, his transcendence over the incarnation and liberation, then we think of his omniscience as an inscribing of history and events in a nexus of events that has already been established, that is unchangeable and immutable, and that all takes place at a stroke. Then we do not have to enter into a dialogue with God, or into a monologue that, like Job's, demands a response from God, but simply have to submit to the unchanging and, in a true sense, inhuman will of God.

The whole Bible, whether in the Old Testament or the Gospels, tells us that there is no such thing as destiny or fate. All this is replaced by love, and hence the joyful freedom that the first Christians experienced. But gradually, and insidiously, fate stages a comeback. (pgs. 107-108)
Ellul's arguments here tie into the concept of Open Theism, in which the future is unwritten, even by God. Many Christians still view Open Theism as heresy, even though it's arguably more biblical than the idea of a God who transcends time. If everything that will ever happen has already been witnessed by God, then how can free will be anything other than an illusion? And without free will, how can we ever truly love God or those around us?

From now on destiny and divine omniscience are conjoined. Believers can live in perfect peace because they know that everything was written in advance and they can change nothing. The very formula "It was written" could come only from a religion of the book. Yet the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels never use such a formula.

Thanks to it, the idea of predestination that was already haunting philosophical and Christian thinking received confirmation, forcibly established itself, and came to include double predestination (in Calvin), which, whether we want it or not, transforms the biblical God into destiny, Ananke, etc. And this derives from Muslim thinking. For it is not just historical events that were written in advance; it is also eternal salvation (or rejection). Ultimately this conviction came to dominate a good part of Christendom, and paganism rejoins it with its belief in the god of fate. (pg. 108)
One can see these concepts at work in the ex-gay movement, where the only options presented to anyone with a homosexual orientation are change or death. Once again, free will exists only in the form of a single binary choice: one either submits fully to one's predetermined fate, or spends eternity being endlessly punished for choosing incorrectly. If that's truly the freedom that the Apostle Paul speaks of, then perhaps we're not taking enough of our cues from Islam.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Life Soundtrack 6




Who I Am Hates Who I've Been (acoustic version), by Relient K. As I said when I printed the lyrics, this makes a good "coming out of the closet" song even though that's probably not what Relient K intended. Even viewed as an anthem of repentance (as they most likely did intend), it worked well for me as a theme song when I was in the process of disentangling myself from the ex-gay mindset.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Consequences

In the midst of the church's eternal quest for theological purity, it's not uncommon for the people the church supposedly consists of to get lost in the shuffle. We get so caught up in debates over Greek words and various -ologies that we forget to pause to consider what effects our doctrines and dogmas have on individuals in the real world. Surely, we think, if our stance is "biblical" then it can only produce good results in the lives of those around us.

So what do we do when our theology passes all the criteria of orthodoxy, yet causes more harm than good in practice? There's a balance to be maintained here, to be certain; it would be irresponsible to toss a doctrine out the window simply because somebody registers a complaint against it. But we must also take care to avoid falling into the habit of playing "blame the victim" as so many fundamentalists do.

As a case in point, consider the exclusivist view of salvation. According to many Christian traditions, the vast majority of those who have ever lived will spend eternity in hell. The exact nature of hell is open to debate, but the size of its population is less frequently questioned. Even some inclusivist viewpoints expect a large percentage to end up eternally separated from God.

But what are the fruits of such a belief? How does this idea play out in real life? In my observation the predominant effect is to instill two emotions in believers that one wouldn't expect to stem from a God-inspired doctrine:

1. Pride. It's a subtle thing (as pride often is), but many Christians seem to take pride in the fact that they're part of an exclusive, privileged group. This is especially prevalent in churches that have adopted a separatist mentality, but even outside of such enclaves one hears stories of Christians whose attitude toward outsiders (and even members of other denominations) is one of disdain and condescension.

2. Fear - specifically fear of Hell. This can be both fear for one's own salvation and fear for loved ones. It's entirely understandable that many Christians become consumed with fear for the eternal souls of those they care about (I certainly don't wish an eternity of gruesome torment even on those who wish me harm), but fear causes us to act in irrational ways. Legalism is rooted in such fear, as are "tough love" and a host of abusive behaviors.

If the fruits of the Spirit are love, peace, joy and the like, it seems reasonable to expect that any God-inspired doctrine will tend to nurture an increase in those positive traits in those who worship him. What, then, can we say about a doctrine that consistently cultivates negative traits like pride and fear? No doubt some will choose to defend the doctrine at any cost; admitting that we may be wrong about what we so sincerely and fervently believed to be God's plainly spoken truth can be a humiliating experience.

But what if God never meant for us to become so wrapped up in worrying about our (and others') eternal destiny? What if being one of the "chosen few" has less to do with being heaven-bound than it does with being set aside by God to be a blessing to the world around us? Note that such an idea doesn't require adopting a universalistic view of salvation; one can accept that some people might freely choose eternal separation from God (whatever that may look like) even after meeting him face to face, without having to spend this life consumed by fear for the eternal souls of one's family and friends. The "good news" of the gospel can be worth sharing with others even if it doesn't contain an underlying threat of endless torture.

But I digress. At the end of the day, it's worth asking whether the things we believe help to nurture and increase our love for God and for others, or whether they weigh us down by cultivating traits like pride, fear and self-absorption. Such an evalutation can't be our only guidepost, but it's one we ignore at our own peril.