Having been raised in various Pentecostal churches, and attending an Assemblies of God church into my mid-twenties, it seems ironic that the theology of the Holy Spirit seems so foreign and unfamiliar to me. Growing up, language about “the Holy Ghost” and “the Holy Spirit” was nearly as commonplace as references to Jesus. But the implications of those references were limited and vague. “What does the Holy Spirit do?” The Holy Spirit speaks to us, tells us how to live and what choices to make, and “it” blesses us with gifts like glossolalia, prophesy and healing. “Who is the Holy Spirit?” That question was a little more complicated. We didn’t pray to the Holy Spirit… I don’t even think I prayed to Jesus, come to think of it. I prayed to God the Father. Implicit even in this was the hierarchical dominance of the Father as the “head” of the Trinity. “Father” in many ways was synonymous with God, while Jesus was the Son of God, and the Spirit was… something else.
Stanley Grenz’s book Created for Community discussed in depth the function of the Spirit as it empowers the social nature of the Trinity. But this does not deal specifically with who the Holy Spirit is. Clark Pinnock explains we must “begin with the identity of the Spirit as a divine Person in a social Trinity and with the sheer liveliness of God… We start with the identity of the triune God and with the face of the Spirit within this community as the ecstasy of life.” Pinnock points out, however, that contemporary theologians often fail to make such meaning intelligible to lay Christians, or pragmatic to the Christian life.
Veli-Matti Karkkainen calls the wide variety of ecclesiological interpretations of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s ministry “exciting,” and that’s an optimistic view: “Even though there is one Spirit of God, the differing emphases and needs of particular churches and traditions have created a rich treasure of spiritual experiences.” He lists the variance between Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic pieties. But the challenge each of these Christian traditions faces is its own theological myopia. Apart from charismatic anomalies, modern Roman Catholics have not explored Pentecostalism en masse, while modern day Pentecostals practice little liturgical or doctrinal cont
inuity with more traditional, orthodox denominations.
Pentecostalism represents a grassroots spiritual movement rather than a novel theological construction. It has not so much produced new theology as a new kind of spirituality and aggressive evangelism methods. Therefore, it has provoked controversy at almost every stage of its development.
Without a firm theological construct to explain and locate itself within a broader Christian context, such spirituality can too easily become a destabilizing force. Just as important: without strong foundations in Trinitarian orthodoxy, understanding of the Holy Spirit’s connection to the Father/Mother/Creator can be manipulated for modern cultural agendas. Kevin Giles explains, “the contemporary conservative evangelical case for the permanent subordination
of women frequently asserts that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father.” Giles’ argument extends into the parallel relationship between Father and Spirit. Rather than a prisoner to normative culture, Giles explains that the Spirit transcends fleeting human morals, and proceeds forward, powering an evolving awareness of God’s love:
On the matter of slavery, virtually all contemporary evangelicals deny the tradition… They begin with the altogether modern idea that slavery is an evil. If slavery is evil, they conclude, it cannot be endorsed in the Bible because the Bible cannot legitimate what is evil. The problem is that the tradition gives no support to such an idea. Until the latter half of the eighteenth century, virtually every theologian held that the Bible regulated and legitimated slavery… It was only when cultural values changed as God’s work in history moved forward that human beings for the first time came to see that slavery must be rejected and opposed. In this new social context teaching hitherto passed over in Scripture came to the fore: all people are made in the image of God, all are loved by God, all are to be set free in Christ. As a result, this change in culture led to a change in theology. The tradition was rejected and new ways of interpreting relevant biblical passages emerged.
Reading Giles’ book, it is easy to continually make parallels between the culturally-informed subordination of black slaves and women, and the contemporary marginalization of LGBT people today. As cultural values change (as God’s work in history moves forward) human beings have begun to see that the condemnation and marginalization of homosexuals must be rejected and opposed. To use Giles’ words, such tradition should be rejected, and new ways of interpreting relevant biblical passages must emerge. In many denominations worldwide, including my own United Church of Christ, this has occurred. We affirm and even ordain LGBTQ people, along with the ELCA Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, and the PCUSA Presbyterian Church, among others. Yet Giles makes a seemingly impassioned d
efense against such an association at the end of his book, explaining why he doesn’t make the logical jump to human sexuali
ty. His defense appears much more political than theological, as he seems compelled to measure and limit the implications of the previous 270 pages he’s written. I’m reminded of the ways Martin Luther opposed and undermined the movement he began, when they crossed the lines of what he deemed “acceptable” protest against Roman Catholic teaching and praxis. T
hat opposition even led to his affirmation of the persecution and murder of countless “Protestant” peasants of Luther’s day. Luther wanted to heed the Spirit’s call for change, but only the change he personally recognized as relevant and necessary. Still, the Holy Spirit proceeded forth.
It’s impossible to be certain of the Holy Spirit’s specific direction and prophetic manifestation, as so many Christians and so many “prophets” oppose each other’s conclusions. But I believe now, more than ever, that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the world, and working to reconcile all things to God’s self.
My favorite explanation of the Holy Spirit is from Denis Edwards, who describes the Holy Spirit as the Breath of God:
[The Spirit] can be thought of as breathing life into the universe in all its stages: into its laws and initial conditions, its origin and its evolution… The Spirit enables the emergence of the new at
every stage from the first nuclei of hydrogen and helium, to atoms, galaxies, the Sun, bacterial forms of life, complex cells the wonderfully diverse forms of life on Earth, and human beings who can think and love and praise.
There is frustrating mystery and ambiguity as we explore the nature of God, Spirit and Trinity. Even more frustrating: the manipulation and power-grabbing that too often comes with this endeavor. May we all continue evolving together, by the transcendent and immanent power of the Holy Spirit.
 Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996), 22.
 Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International and Contextual Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 67.
 Vatican II marked a turn in the Roman Catholic Church’s pneumatology and spiritual praxis, leading to the Charismatic Renewal of the 1960s. That renewal has been affirmed by three contemporary popes, but it remains a minority movement within the broader church.
Continuing a great conversation with my friend from George Fox Seminary, David Manning.
And my belief in the vision of Christ and the Kingdom of God is real enough that it doesn’t hinge on anything but itself.
If your belief is a real thing in itself, and doesn’t have to signify anything beyond itself, then in what sense can you and I—we both being Christians—be said to share the same faith? I can see how the phrase “we both believe X” has meaning if we both have a similar belief that corresponds to a thing exterior to us both, but if the correspondence to something objective isn’t important, how can two individuals be said to belong to the same faith?
The Cross and Resurrection illuminated Christ and illustrated salvation. They did not invent, define or limit them (imho).
This seems to assume that there is *something* out there that corresponds to the idea of salvation. What sort of thing is it? On what basis is it founded? Whatever it is, why is it a more acceptable basis for salvation than the historical Incarnation?
* * *
This is a GREAT question: “can you and I… be said to share the same faith?” David, I would answer that, by the grace of God, yes. But qualitatively? Maybe not really…
Just as I believe that our faith in God, through Christ, is made whole and complete through the grace of God that reaches out and meets us, I also believe that our faith — our conception of God — and our feeble attempts at understanding Divinity, “aiming” toward truth and responding appropriately — are inevitable failures in and of themselves. So I would say, David, we share the same faith because we share the same wholehearted, authentic desire to follow God, through Christ, although our understanding of what that means is divergent. But David, wouldn’t you agree that even if you and I used the exact same language, and had no identifiable differences in our theological constructs, our psychology/neurology, personality, and even our minor geographic and cultural, differences would all contribute to hugely dissimilar internal meanings for all those constructs? I think so. If any of us is ever on the same page, it’s only momentary, and even then we’re on different paragraphs.
This is why I’m also willing to call my neighbors from other faith traditions “sister” and “brother,” and why I call my time with my agnostic friends “fellowship.” We are on parallel paths, although our language is different. I don’t believe I am endangering or sacrificing my salvation or theirs by dropping my need (and it used to be a very strong need, indeed!) to self-differentiate.
Love your question about salvation, too. I’m a universalist, and my language on salvation gets me into trouble, because I call myself an evangelical too, and sometimes I get myself trapped! Part of that is because I haven’t worked through all of the intricacies of what it means to be a liberal, evangelical, universalist (+douchebag) and part of it is because I believe that there are inherent tensions in these identifiers that cannot be resolved. And perhaps should not be. And as I’ve said before, I’m an evangelical for cultural reasons as much as any other factor.
So, I believe that God is an inherently salvific being, and that creation is in a process both of being created and saved, and of being maligned and destroyed. I believe creation wins, on the long arch “that bends toward justice,” but it doesn’t happen by magic. It happens by the steady, deliberate march of the people of the Kingdom of God.
I believe that Christ, as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, Co-Equal with the [Gender-Neutral] Father, and the Spirit, demonstrated on earth the Divine nature of God and what human beings were capable of in perfect spiritual submission: forgiveness, unconditional love, subversive, counterintuitive Kingdom economics/politics (I’d rather not get into all that here).
I believe that the inevitable response of Principalities and Powers to the nature of God (true, pure, goodness) is to destroy it. I also believe that, often, the response of those oppressed by Principalities and Powers is to lash out against the “other” victim, when the system exerts itself elsewhere. This is self preservation. So something I dealt with (briefly) in this Banned Questions book is that arguing about whether or not Christ’s crucifixion was a “requirement” of atonement by God has been an unnecessary theological exercise. Not right or wrong (necessarily) but not necessary. Probably inevitable, in that we like to explain everything, and put God behind the reins, but I don’t believe humanity needed “atonement.”
Do I believe in sin? Absolutely! Do I believe sin distances us from God? Well, I believe sin is dysfunction and lack of health, so when we are unhealthy we have a harder time connecting to Divinity – of course. But I do not believe God needed recompense, or to be “satisfied,” or that Satan had to be paid ransom. This is more than simply “moral influence,” because I choose to believe Christ was God, and that God revealed Divine nature, Divine will, Divine Mercy and Humility, Divine love – Divine desire and intent – through Christ’s Theophany. It showed MORE than what humankind was capable of. Christ shows us what God is up to…
So I believe that the process of salvation has been in operation since the Big Bang (pow!) and that God is mysteriously, subversively (frustratingly-slowly, imho) wooing all of creation toward redemption. That salvation is working its way through every society, culture, and religious tradition, not necessarily making any of them salvific in and of themselves, but all of them marked with the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I could go on and on, and as I re-read what I’ve written, all of the “I believe’s” strike me as more than a tad narcissistic. But so is blogging, in general. David, again, you asked, “Whatever it is, why is it a more acceptable basis for salvation than the historical Incarnation.” I hope that I’ve demonstrated that the historical Incarnation actually is my basis for what salvation is. I simply don’t believe that the historical Incarnation is the matrix in which salvation exists, or that it serves as a boundary or limitation for salvation’s identity. The Incarnation is a window through which we view something much larger – ultimately incomprehensible.
Something is coming! And someone has come! And all this will continue…
This month’s Synchroblogis about the journey of advent, as we enter this season once again.
ADVENT – THE JOURNEY - Advent is the dawn of a journey that leads us not only to Bethlehem but potentially to a new understanding of our relationship to God and his beloved creation. Share your thoughts about the journey of advent during this inspirational season.
Growing up in non-liturgical churches, for me the advent season manifested as a calendar with chocolates hidden behind each day’s door.
Over the last few years, I have participated through the United Methodist Book of Worship. This season, I look forward to experiencing Episcopal liturgies.
What has struck me more in recent years is how we cyclically repeat the anticipation of the one who has already come. We enter into a time and space that is no longer linear – participating in the angst and hardship and sorrow of the world before the advent of Christ.
But Christ did not begin in Nazareth, two thousand years ago. Christ has been, from the beginning.
Today, creation still groans, experiencing the tragedy of ongoing sorrow. Jesus didn’t bring an end to suffering. But with his birth, birthed hope. The one who came has come, and continues to come, and through us, may be manifested in our broken, beautiful world.
* * *
I heard a Russian Orthodox priest explain icons last year: worshipping in the presence of these images reminds us that we are literally in communion with all of the saints who have come before us. As we pray, we pray with them. As we fellowship, we fellowship with them.
In a similar way, British author and InklingCharles Williams used the term coinherence to describe a number of spiritual phenomena, including ways in which human beings are connected spiritually, across geographic distances, and time (including beyond the boundaries of death).
As we participate in various advent liturgies (from attending services at our churches, to opening the Starbucks Advent Calendar) I suggest we explore ways of spiritually connecting with the saints who have come before us, with St. Mary, Mother of God, with St. Anthony, St. John Chrysostom, St. Theresa Avila and countless others… then let us look forward, praying for (and with) all of the saints yet to be born.
Don’t let my use of the word “saint” limit you to an exclusively Christian endeavor. May we share communion with all of humanity, where God is at work everywhere – among us and in us – through all of time.
Don’t miss the other participants in this month’s Synchroblog!
A visitor recently e-mailed me about my blog and my beliefs. He was respectful, articulate, and had a very different worldview from my own. One of our clearest dissimilarities had to do with truth. He viewed it as something to be “reached.” An “end,” if you will.
I have no problem with that. I think it’s a very understandable – and probably orthodox – vantage to practice Christianity from: Scripture is Truth; Jesus Christ is Truth. Getting to that confessional point is THE point.
And from a personal standpoint, I don’t even have much to argue with. I’ve affirmed my own belief in Jesus Christ as embodied truth, before. I think I’d be more comfortable saying that Scripture is truthful, because I don’t have faith that it is inherently “correct.” There is truth in Scripture, as there is also context, opinion, poetry, emotion, love, hate, atrocity, misunderstanding, redaction, deception, and a great story at the end about robots and computers and bar codes and atomic war and a UN Chairman who can bend time… Just kidding about that last part, none of that is in Revelation.
There was a point, several years ago, when I would spend a lot of time arguing my “case” over e-mail. Some of it made for pretty fruitful posts (in my opinion) but that’s all already on the blog. At this point, I don’t feel a strong need to defend myself, although I certainly spend lots of time advocating for ideas. And most of these posts are nothing more than my own working out and wrestling. Sometimes I get e-mails from folks who genuinely think it’s just a matter of me NOT KNOWING the CORRECT doctrine or interpretation. Their thinking seems to be: “if he can simply be made AWARE of his erroneous theological conclusions, he will then right his spiritual and theological course (and save his soul).” I’m not a scholar or a theologian. I’m not really academically-minded. I’m a lowly M.Div student and a lifelong Evangelical. I don’t presume to carry much depth of knowledge in any particular theological subset. But having been in the church for 31 years, and attended seminary for the last five years, I’m not wholly ignorant either, and it’s been several years since I’ve been “surprised” by a theological concept I was previously unaware of. You’re certainly welcome to prove me wrong and I don’t feel arrogant or proud saying any of that.
The reason I advocate for ongoing deconstruction, even as I attempt to construct something new and workable for myself, is that I don’t trust my own constructs any more than I trust your constructs or Paul’s or Irenaeus’. Kierkegaard wrote, “Concepts, like individuals, have their histories and are just as incapable of withstanding the ravages of time as are individuals.” The truth changes as we change and the world changes. As I said recently, whatever we can articulate as “the thing” stops being “the thing” at that moment. As the Tao Te Ching eloquently puts it, “The Way that can be experienced is not true; the world that can be constructed is not real.” I think we have a tendency, as soon as something becomes true for us, or real for us, to grab it and hold it fast – preventing it from changing, growing, or living! Static things are not alive, and I believe truth must be a living thing. That’s why Scripture, doctrine and theological systems (however helpful they may be) can be unhelpful when they place restraints or limitations on God.
All that said, my readers and online friends have had an IMMENSE impact on my personal faith and beliefs. I have certainly changed because of feedback, comments and questions, so keep them coming!
(just don’t expect a quick “conversion” on my part… I’m dense and stubborn and far too convinced of Divine Grace to feel a lot of urgency to sort this stuff out in a timely manner)
Making sure I don’t renege on my commitment to more positivity:
There’s a blog that has (sadly) not been active since 2009 called The Quaker Buddhist. It’s a fascinating exploration of the parallels and convergences of Quaker and Buddhist spirituality. I highly recommend it, although it can be somehow depressing or maybe empty-feeling to read a blog that’s no longer “in service.”
If the idea of convergence between Christian and eastern spiritualities is attractive to you, I’d recommend checking out the Quaker Universalist Fellowship. Their website reads:
The Quaker Universalist Fellowship is a gathering of Friends who work to foster understanding among people from the diverse spiritual cultures which flourish in our globalized human community. The Fellowship draws inspiration for its work from such traditional and respected statements of Quaker faith as are represented by the following:
“Walk cheerfully over the earth answering to that of God in everyone.” – George Fox
“There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath different names: it is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no form of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.” – John Woolman
“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death takes off the mask, they will know one another though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.” – William Penn
The work of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship expresses Friends’ belief that there is a spirit of universal love in every person, and that a compassion-centered life is therefore available to people of all faiths and backgrounds.
It’s amazing how progressive, and in many delightful ways, heretical, the founders of Quakerism were. They actually believed God was accessible outside of religious structures! They actually believed there was an inherently good spirit, accessible to all people.
Recently, I’ve become online friends with Michael Hawkins, a jhana yogi, practicing Buddhist, spiritual ecstatic, and former Protestant and Pentecostal. He’s a gracious, energetic, captivating guy to dialogue and I think you’ll love his blog! Like so many of us, Michael is both cynical of and wounded by the Christian church, but simultaneously compassionate, gracious and compelled to interact with it on some level.
I like exploration!
I like blurred boundaries!
I like openness and grace and fearless spiritual desire!
I like rejecting fear of hell and condemnation, and living as if I was actually, truly, literally, unconditionally loved, known and accepted.
This website, www.xtranormal.comis just too much fun! This video is just my first try, but I wanted to highlight the “problem” of orthodoxy when there are 38,000 Christian traditions and denominations in the world. What makes yours right? Comes down to the “choice” I’ve been blogging about for some time…
I was thinking about this on the drive to seminary class tonight: is emotionalism always bad?
Emotions are an easy target for cynics, atheists and liberals. People do silly things when they’re high on the ecstasy of emotion and the consuming pressures of groupthink. Pentecostal worship services seem reliant on mob mentality to keep their frenzied momentum (that’s not as much of a criticism as it sounds).
And it’s absolutely true: God is not our emotions. Our emotions are not the qualitative movement of the Holy Spirit. We can’t rely on FEELINGS to FEEL God. Or to HEAR God. Or to KNOW God.
All too often, feelings really cause problems. When we feel really GOOD, we tend to think it’s a result of the rightness of our theology or our ecclesial practices. So some really BAD habits and some really DANGEROUS beliefs get validated because the feelings that went with them felt sooo goooood.
We need to be thoughtful enough – self-controlled enough – to recognize when emotions are speaking to us. Otherwise, God is speaking through the Hallmark commercial or the Thomas Kinkade painting. That’s not a good reflection of spiritual depth.
But the flip side is, emotions are important! Feeling things is important! Cold cynicism, though understandable, is a harsh way to live. We should be capable of being emotionally moved by God – by Creation, for that matter. And that should be no matter how liberal we are, scientifically minded we think, or how much we want to distance ourselves from XYZ Church.
Are you too cynical to be moved by something beautiful? I hope not.
A few days ago I posted on the concept of belief and theology as choice:
There are countless positions on the conservative-liberal spectrum; dozens of legitimate theological traditions, all with impressive scholarly work behind them; which do you choose? Few Christians study all of the options available; few experiment with more than a couple of denominations – few very disparate from one another, much less culturally unique. 99% of the time our church or denominational affiliation (and therefore our personal theology) comes down to one of these two identifiers:
( A ) I was raised in this denomination (or a similar one)
( B ) I like the people/pastor/worship style/vibe here
And yet so many Christians are willing to wage war over the rightness of their theology, when theology typically has NOTHING to do with why an American Christian chooses a church. You can tell me: “for the Bible tells me so” but let’s be real. You probably came from (A) or (B).
The post instigated some really interesting dialogue (in my opinion) that I’m still processing – turning over in my head. I have highlighted some of the key statements (and a little bit more) from various comments, and wanted to see if it would fuel any further discussion. I hope my hack-and-slash approach (below) doesn’t cause any of the commenters too much grief. Any other thoughts?
asthedeer.com said… [I hold my particular theology] because it is the best explanation I’ve found for things and more reasonable and more compelling than the alternatives.
Personally, I do not align myself any longer with a church of any sort, nor do I adhere to a specific doctrine. Theology is out the window… All of [the] denominations [I have attended] say that one must have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”/i.e. accept salvation through Jesus so I didn’t do a lot of belief-swapping when I moved from church to church… Is it even possible to have authentic belief/faith in something that you *have* to believe in order to avoid hell/eternal conscious torment? Does that fear of hell automatically make authentic belief impossible?
…Often this affiliation is accompanied by a conversion experience or a deep insight that certainly feels very real… Because this experience emerges in or is constructed by a particular cultural milieu, that milieu itself is then fraught with epistemological weight. It becomes part of our identity, and it does not let go easily. We don’t feel like we’re choosing. In many cases we feel like we’re responding to something outside of us. The attendant belief seems like it goes all the way down, and the idea that we could choose something different undermines our need for that belief to be genuine… We have to recognize that beliefs we hold now which seem to go all the way down could be just as arbitrary, just as constructed, just as much of a choice whether we’re aware of making a choice or not…
Ira, I think you’re really right – especially about my post under-appreciating the weight of the conversion experience. I think I need to add that as a very important (C) - and probably the most “troublesome” of all… I don’t have any problem acknowledging that the choices I (we) make are arbitrary. The key differentiator is self-awareness and intellectual honesty…
Stanley Hauerwas has written that “the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy.” …It’s easy for us to think that we actually make free rational choices when in fact even the notion of “freedom of choice” is in some ways a story that was given to us. Choice is hardly arbitrary but is deeply informed by the communities and stories that form us (for good or ill)… Regarding the church/denominational affiliation, my reasons are a bit different that the two reasons you list. I was baptized Episcopalian, raised in fundy/charismatic churches, and went to a Catholic university. I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church as an adult after attending a local Covenant church. I did indeed “like the people/pastor/worship style vibe” there, but that is not what keeps me in the denomination now. It’s the relationships I have with the many different people I’ve met in my 10+ years as a Covenanter…
… Not not everyone holds beliefs with the level of self-consciousness your question assumes. Good, solid, genuine belief, it seems to me, feels like having your eyes opened to the truth; it doesn’t feel like a choice. The problem comes when you’ve had a few of those, and they’re mutually exclusive in content, and you begin do doubt the experience of belief itself… But for people who haven’t faced that, or people who can continue to think their latest epiphany is true no matter what it means for their conviction that the last epiphany was true, the idea that belief is a choice can be baffling, which is why I invoked the idea of beliefs being chosen for us. This, I think, is what Gavin is insightfully getting at: the idea that belief is a choice is part of a belief that has been chosen for us…
… I finally realized that the whole hell thing felt like having a boyfriend who told me that he loved me and that he wanted me to love him and that if I didn’t love him that he would lock me in a room in my house and burn me alive… it really doesn’t leave much room for love, you know… I think I can only really love God if that isn’t the situation. It isn’t about me picking an choosing what things sound fun, but about the facts about love…
My argument is that choice, for better and for worse, is reality. We all do it… What I’m really trying to advocate for is exactly what the problem seems to inherently be with my argument in the first place: people are not aware of the choices they have made. They see them as inevitabilities – often inevitabilities resulting from Absolute Truth… It’s interesting that you see “choice” as a choice chosen for us. Because I see theological choice as profoundly counter-cultural, in the midst of a mindset that sees “right belief” as an inevitability of ones conversion or church-of-origin
… [Gavin's] comment speaks to the contingency of our own belief, including (or especially) our beliefs about belief… You want people to recognize the choices inherent in their theological constructions, the arbitrariness of the theological particulars they seem ready to die for. I think this is especially key for those in a place where they’re experiencing some serious cognitive dissonance. To the person who says “I love gay people, and I want to be able to support same-sex marriage but I just can’t, because the Bible says…” and so forth, I’m always tempted to say that if they really want to be able to support it, there are ways to get there. But this breaks the rules. It’s asking them to step outside their own language game and adjust it consciously, and this probably seems cynical to them. We’re left trying to either get them to see they’ve always already been making choices, as you are doing, or helping them get there within the rules of the existing language game, as others are doing. Both are difficult. …All belief is contingent, which covers choice but also those choices made for us. And I mean this of all belief, including my belief that belief is contingent.
I’m back. And I think being saved doesn’t require God’s people to choose the theology – although I wish they’d think through what they say… The better question is why do we refuse to listen and change by someone else’s opinion? Instead of grappling with points of view, men hold their own to the death…
Ira… Your point on cognitive dissonance is well-taken. If that dissonance hasn’t yet occurred there’s little point in talking about choice… You said: “against the idea that belief is inevitability, you’re putting up the antithesis that belief is a choice. I’m negating that, not to get back to the affirmation of belief as inevitability, but to point out that belief-as-choice is also a choice, and one that might not have been made consciously.” … Ira, yes, choosing to believe belief is a choice is a choice... So I guess I’m choosing to believe I have the power to choose. And I’m choosing to believe that you have that power too. And that whether you know it or not, or make use of it or not, that power remains. And my central argument (at the risk of sounding ridiculously redundant) is that IF people can be invited to step outside of their immediate vantage and see the commonalities between their own faith experience (upbringing, conversion, membership, community) and those of others, they may be naturally more inclined to value the positions of others, and less inhibited to explore and adopt those positions that seem more… authentic? Consistent? Organic to their own gut-level values.
Your basic argument, as stated, is something I agree with. I would just nuance it in two directions: 1) Beliefs you recognize as choice are not recognized as such for people who feel them as deep beliefs. They might get there, and your questions about cultivating cognitive dissonance are apt… 2) That belief is a choice is a deep belief of yours… that you don’t recognize as choice. You’re smart enough to concede it intellectually, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel like a choice… Isn’t your belief in God a choice — which is to say, something contingent? If we lack free will, it might be because God is in control, or it might be because the result of materialistic determinism. Or perhaps free will is genuine, but even here we have many, many choices that could be made. Do your choices touch bottom in a way that mine don’t, or that Gavin’s don’t, or that Cheryl’s don’t? At any rate, I’m trying to get you to grasp — not just intellectually, but in to really feel it — how slippery all of our constructs of belief and knowledge really are. If I can get you to see that others might not be prepared to accept belief as choice, I might be able to get you to see that there are things you are likewise not prepared for, or at least haven’t been previously… I think I’m starting to sound overly pedantic. I don’t really mean that. Let’s put it this way: the line of thinking that belief-as-choice puts you on goes some interesting places, and I think you’ll enjoy them…
Ira, it’s been helpful to have you push me to refine this language and thinking in terms of choice… You said, “If I can get you to see that others might not be prepared to accept belief as choice, I might be able to get you to see that there are things you are likewise not prepared for, or at least haven’t been previously.” My recognition that many aren’t prepared to accept this belief is why I’m so interested in flushing out what – exactly – it means in the first place. And whether or not it’s an area worth exploring for that very reason. Are there ways to help others become more self-aware? …
…If you follow the belief-as-choice line, and accept the idea that some of those beliefs are chosen for us, and you really internalize that, then you have to face the possibility that any or all of our beliefs are similarly contingent, or constructed, and even if we assume (or insist) that some of them aren’t, there’s no calculus by which we can arrive at which ones. This applies even (or especially) to the beliefs we hold most dear.
…In regards to how we choose what we believe, of course our background plays a huge part in that. But if we limit ourselves to that, we are totally ignorant and basically robots. At the same time if we are just constantly exploring our options, we can never really move forward. At some point, we have to determine what we believe. Being a part of a denomination is about affirming beliefs that resonate with a majority, but that definitely doesn’t mean everyone agrees on everything. And that is okay.
Ira, I believe that on some level ALL of our beliefs are contingent. I’m not afraid of saying that, and simultaneously choosing to affirm those beliefs that seem most constructive, good, helpful, transcendent, etc… I don’t believe any of them aren’t. Which is the whole point about choices. No non-negotiables. Only faithful choices. And my belief that my choices are faithful is, itself, a choice. I agree: no objective calculus. If “certainty is the opposite of faith,” then it’s faith through which I choose to move forward as a spiritual/religious being. As Kelly said (below) “if we are just constantly exploring our options, we can never really move forward. At some point, we have to determine what we believe.” I think there’s a way to determine or choose what one is going to believe, but remain open-handed, so that if no experiences, studies or evidence leads us to change/evolve, we’re open to that. In that way, in response to Kelly, I think it can be both/and: we can believe and move forward without building walls around those beliefs. We will always change.
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I know, I hacked all that up a bit. As I’ve said, I’m really enjoying reading and re-reading the comments here. Let me know what you think about the idea of BELIEF-AS-DELIBERATE-CHOICE…
A couple of weeks ago I celebrated my 500th post, and started to dissect the characteristics listed in this blog’s header, starting with “deconstructing”:
deconstructing, advocating, liberating, evolving, hoping, loving God.
Today I’m going to tackle two of those characteristics because I think they really go hand in hand – at least they do for me.
ADVOCATING & LIBERATING This week, the first thing I think of when discussing advocacy is the topic of Proposition 8, which was recently struck down.
I believe in democracy. I may believe in a socialized democracy, but that’s because I believe in built-in protections for people. I don’t trust churches OR corporations to keep citizen’s best interests at heart (moreover, I don’t trust a democratic system that is largely bought and operated by massive multinational corporations, now awarded “personhood” by the Supreme Court, able to pursue their interests alongside individuals with little power or resources). Read Thom Hartmann’s What Would Jefferson Do? for more thoughts on free societies, and crony capitalism.
Still, I believe in democracy. It must carry the assurances of Civil Rights, which ensure that the minority (whatever minority) is never forced to submit to the tyranny of the majority. We’ve seen this time and again through world history, and even US history: the contemporary zeitgeist cannot be trusted to protect the vulnerable and marginalized. Did the majority protect blacks during slavery or Jim Crowe? Did the majority save suffragettes from brutality, torture and imprisonment in the early 20th Century? What about Miscegenation Laws, enforced through 1967, keeping mixed-race couples from marrying?
In 1965 Judge Bazile of Virginia upheld an anti-miscegenation ruling, and defended racial segregation using a religious premise:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” (referenced in The Washington Post, 06/13/2006)
That was status quo thinking. So I’m skeptical when the appeal is: “the majority of Americans believe…” or “the majority of Christians believe…” because the majority is damn fickle, moved more often by fear and self-preservation than by moral clarity or spiritual enlightenment. Advocacy is speaking out for any cause, but what really touches my passions is when we are speaking out for people. Semantics? Maybe. But often when we speak of causes, we lose sight of the individuals involved. There are people who advocate for the needy, but who are literally disgusted by homeless people. There are folks who advocate for racial equality, but who still harbor racism. I’m a committed feminist, but I’m still trying to overcome my inner-chauvinism. Ideals don’t always translate to personal transformation. I want to advocate for people.
I think of Amnesty International, and an old Sunday School song I used to sing as a child: I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me, Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see, Opens prison doors, sets the captives free, I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me!
But are the words really true? Does the world buy those claims? Do we give the world any reason to?
As a Christian, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth — the historical human manifestation of the Cosmic Christ — the demonstration of God’s weakness and God’s love, God’s power and God’s humility — one equal person of the Trinity — is a spiritual river of redemption, renewal and liberation that pours out of my life and my spirit. I believe that river has the power to change us, to heal us, and to awaken us in profound ways. I believe that awakening can and must lead us to advocacy: opening prison doors and setting captives free. Because the Body of Christ does not function by magic, but by liberated people, powered by the Holy Spirit, continuing the work of liberation. That liberation necessarily involves real people, not blanket causes that separate us from the very intimate, transformative work of liberation (admittedly, this is difficult for the 1st World to practice, with our geographic separation from so much of the world’s suffering. But this is likely one of the reasons our aid efforts – primarily through monetary donations – fail to affect real, ongoing change. Money does not liberate).
While we are called and empowered to actively liberate, I believe we have the power and ability to suppress and stop that work in ourselves, and in others. We can keep people captive. We can lock the prison doors. In Matthew 6:19 Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In John 20:23 Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
So as human beings, we have the power to liberate or imprison, to free or enslave, to forgive or damn. What will you do? What does your gut tell you? And why? WHY IS IT SO EASY AS A SOCIETY AND AS A RELIGIOUS CULTURE TO OPPRESS OUR NEIGHBORS? Paul was so committed to the liberation of his people that he said, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers…”
How many of us are THAT interested in liberation? To damn oneself for the sake of others?
We have the power to free the world around us, not only in the sense of spiritual emancipation (and I’m not even broaching the topic of the afterlife). Right here, right now, the world needs to be freed from the bondage of principalities and powers (gangs, angry mobs, militaries, corporations and regimes) that rob other human beings of their very humanity. In doing so, they (we) surrender our own humanity.
I found this image (to the right) online. It comes from the Aboriginal Activists Group: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Desmond Tutu said, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human, together.”
This really ties back to what I wrote earlier: advocating for a cause is often egocentric. We do it with motivations that often serve us personally, while buffering us from humanity on the receiving end. Some kinds of charity serve first and foremost to identify us as the GIVERS, rather than the RECEIVERS. Self-differentiation.
As a Christian, I believe that I am in bondage until my sisters and brothers, neighbors and enemies are truly liberated. I cannot be human if I cannot affirm the humanity of others. I cannot be human if my neighbors are not allowed their humanity. All of my efforts to liberate, liberate me. Jesus said, “Whatever you have done to the least of these, my brethren, you have done unto me.” So God is liberated to be God when we liberate each other.
In my mind, advocacy is a beginning stage in the process of liberation. We advocate out of passion and conviction. The next step is liberation. I don’t believe that my meager attempts on this blog are inherently liberating. This is my advocacy. I’d be hard pressed to find many examples where I truly participated in “liberation.” Sometimes I have done quite the opposite. What steps have you taken? How have you advocated? How have you worked to liberate? How have you been liberated?
I’m an M.Div student at George Fox Seminary, and a contributing writer in Spencer Burke’s Out of theOOZE (NavPress), Leonard Sweet’s Church of the Perfect Storm (Abingdon Press) and Christian Piatt’s Banned Questions About Jesus (Chalice Press).
I’m a liberal, an egalitarian, a deconstructionist, an Outlaw Preacher, and a loudmouth. I want to be your friend...