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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

4 Sources Every Christian's Hermeneutic Needs

Everyone has a hermeneutic. A hermeneutic is simply your way of interpreting Reality or God's presence in texts, creation, religion, science, and so on.

Before you buck at the idea and think, "I don't do that! I don't do anything as subjective as interpreting God myself," it's wise to keep in mind that all religion, all churches and pastors and creeds, use a hermeneutic. If you've ever asked, "What is this biblical passage saying to me personally," then you've engaged in interpretation, too. And that's okay.

Although hermeneutics can be bad or good (or somewhere in between), simply having a hermeneutic is neutral and natural. It's how we're able to grasp anything from God at all. All language—even the "original" Latin, Greek, or Hebrew—is a form of interpreting and making the inexpressible somehow expressible. Interpretation isn't bad, it's a necessity.

The four elements below are what every Christian must balance. I call the hermeneutic, "REST," which is an acronym that is self-explanatory below. But "REST" also connotes the place that such a hermeneutic should lead us: a place of tranquility, openness, and freedom. These four are a way of knowing truth, and "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

  • Reason
    I've written before about the use of reason in faith. There is nothing wrong with being logical in your faith. The trick is simply knowing where its limits our. Logic and reason produce questions. Questions are good. Questions can lead you to God. You cannot love a question. Cardinal Edwin O'Brien says that someone will give their life for a mystery but not for a question mark. Reason has limits but it is still invaluable. You cannot have a faith that does not use reason. If you're open to truth in all its forms (even logical and scientific truth), than you're view of God will be more holistic and therefore more true.

  • Experience
    My own experiences have proved vital to my faith, and I really couldn't have maintained faith without making room for them to inform what I think about God, myself, and life. Experience does the hard work of growth for us. Many Christians view experience as something dangerous or a subjective challenge to other authorities like the Bible. That's not always the case (and probably not even most of the time). Experience is subjective but it's also a way for God to speak to you. It may teach you things you can't learn anywhere else. There's a difference between reading about the Good Samaritan and actually being a Good Samaritan.

  • Scripture
    This is probably the biggest common denominator that Christians as a group share. Yes, there are differences of preference, of what's given authority. There are even different versions of the Bible and different books or words. But for the most part, we recognize the Bible as a complex but ultimately true text with Christ at its center. I do think that Scripture can be called the authority in Christianity. But for me, this does not outweigh the other three sources, and it certainly doesn't outweigh the value of Christian tradition. You can take a Catholic or a Protestant view of Scripture but its best to remember that Scripture's authority does not exclude other authorities.

  • Tradition
    I suggest that all Christians recognize some authority when it comes to tradition. This is why we quote Augustine or Francis of Assisi regardless of our individual creeds. There is power in the 2000 years of history our faith has had since Christ's death and resurrection. If you still need convincing, the authority of Scripture was determined by Christian leaders, meeting, praying, and weighing tradition in order to determine what texts were authentically the Word of God and should be included in the Bible. That simple realization can open us up to accepting that our vast faith history has something true to say when it comes to informing our own hermeneutic.

REST - Now, how you actually weight each of these elements will be something unique to you and also something you will continue to change but the point is that they harmonize. I do think Scripture and Tradition form the basis on top of which (and through which) you can understand your own views of Experience and Reason but it would be a mistake to think everything works in one direction. Reason can help us understand Scripture and Experience can inform Tradition, and on and on, even if they don't all hold equal authority. There's a lot of nuance here but the general idea should be clear. If some thought of yours appears to be true, you can measure it against the other authorities in your life to test its harmony. If it's false, you'll find yourself twisting everything else to meet this new interpretation and your hermeneutic will be obviously disjointed.

Related Posts:
Abraham, Isaac, and the Heresy of Reason
4 Things Evangelicals Can Learn From Catholicism

God in Evolution

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Can Slytherins Go to Heaven: A Look at Christian Ambition

I am a resolute fan of the Harry Potter books. I'm not crazy for it, off learning how to speak troll or anything. (The real fans will probably write me to correct that the troll language, of course, can't be learned by humans. Or something...) But there are a few troubling thoughts that emerge from the books, and the greatest in my mind is the wizarding school's house system. They're basically like teams with their own mascots and colors. And characteristics. Here's where it gets interesting.

The first house is Gryffindor. All students that go to this house have within them great courage, a desire to do good, and being a champion against injustice. The second house is Ravenclaw, which prizes knowledge, learning, and wisdom above all else. The third house is Hufflepuff, which is honestly sort of a throwaway because all the other houses get cool characteristics and this sort of takes the leftovers. And the fourth and last house is Slytherin. The students of Slytherin all exhibit great attraction to power and ambition.

The problem here is that the author of HP pulls nearly every villain in the series from Slytherin. The implication seems to be that of course a lust for knowledge doesn't corrupt and of course anger at injustice can never end badly but naturally all humans with ambitions who enjoy leadership are very easily made evil.

I don't think the author had Christian intentions but this echoes our own Christian faith and culture. We have divided many characteristics - what are called "personalities" or "essences" or "types" - into 'Of God' and 'Not of God' categories. If you dislike injustice, that's clearly from God. If you're ambitious, that's clearly not. Ambition is evil.

The ambitious are the ones you'll find in Slytherin House. Or perhaps even in your own house and family. Humanity is full of people who seek the spotlight, who are naturally cunning, who have ambitions and goals for themselves. And while we can never condone a life of pure self-interest, it's a mistake to think that ambitions are desires that Christians must automatically deny.

What Do Christians Think of Ambition?

The conversation in most Christian circles assumes ambition is inherently evil. You'll easily find articles with titles like, "Is Ambition Always Sinful" (emphasis added), because of course it's wrong to want to achieve goals or have recognition.

This is because as Christians we've adopted a dualistic view of reality. We hold that certain traits like self-sacrifice come from God and other traits like ambition come from the Enemy. It's one or the other or so we're taught. But is it?

No. Ambition is not an inherently good or bad characteristic; it simply is. For those of us who have great ambitions (and yes, I'm decidedly in this boat), it's simply a matter of orienting those desires properly. I recently spoke to a Wheaton College graduate who said that of course she learned at college to be ambitious, but "ambitious for Jesus!"

This is much healthier than selfish ambition but even what people like John Piper call, "holy ambition," can be dangerous (though not necessarily so). The danger is in thinking that you shouldn't desire success and that if God truly wanted you to be successful, s/he'd give you a winning lottery ticket and 1 million loyal customers overnight! Right...

In one of the best conversations I've had on the topic, I spoke with Adam Graber, a friend, blogger, and deep thinker about faith, technology, and culture (he blogs at The Second Eclectic). I shared that I was feeling guilty wanting my blog to be a success, wanting to get more speaking engagements, wanting to be a voice in Christian conversations. "It's not like I'm person X. I didn't have something from God that was out of my control happen to me that was a sign to write a book or anything," I confessed to him. "I feel like I'm the one choosing to try to be successful." Adam responded, "Even person X wouldn't be a success unless they actively marketed themselves. No one makes it 'just because.' They make it because they pursue success."

He's right. Every popular Christian preacher, blogger, author, and musical artist is popular because they have ambition and because they use that in real attempts to promote their work. "It's hard to imagine anybody who accomplished anything in life or in ministry without a helpful nudge from ambition," says Will Willimon, Methodist bishop and former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.

God Uses Everything about You

God uses all parts of us, even our ambitions. And it's okay to want to be successful in a personal sense. But we have to come by it honestly and hold it loosely. Probably the greatest quote I've read comes from Rachel Held Evans:
Success and failure are a part of life. And it is for life that Jesus has equipped us.  So he has prepared us to see success for what it is—sometimes the result of faithfulness and hard work, sometimes not, sometimes used rightly to glorify God and care for his creation, sometimes used wrongly to glorify ourselves, never an entitlement, often a stumbling block, and always fleeting. 
Always fleeting...isn't that the truth. I think the pitfalls of ambition are a sense of entitlement and putting yourself above others. But this is very different from simply wanting to be read, heard, seen, or otherwise recognized for the gifts God has given you and the hard work you've done. "Ambition denied can be self-deceitful and eventually self-destructive," says Willimon in Christianity Today's Leadership Journal. We should be honest about our ambitions. We just have to be careful that we see them properly. Feeling recognition and success are owed to us is what turns ambition into self-centeredness.

The themes of living a holy life pervade every part of us, including ambition. You can be a Slytherin and still image God beautifully and uniquely. You can be attracted to leadership, have ambitions, and even desire power, just not power for its own sake. Desires are not bad and I would encourage you to pursue your own dreams and success. But we have an obligation to keep in mind that we may not achieve success according to our own standards and that even if we do, it must be honestly come by.

Love, it's always love. If our ambitions are pure, they need not be overtly religious ("Ambitious for Jesus!"...). We need only be sure our lives - whatever the success - have a worth determined by something deeper, that is, the Deep Something.

Related Posts:
Should Christians Feel Guilty about Being Rich?
The Real and True Enemy: What Is "Evil"?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Do We Have to Choose Church or Not? A Response to Donald Miller

Almost every Sunday I wake up seeing daylight filter through my blinds and I immediately panic. I'm used to it being dark when I open my eyes, and I get worried that I slept through my alarm. I'll roll over, check the clock, and (usually) find instant relief: not even 8:00 AM yet. Plenty of time.

I get worried because in almost seven years, I haven't missed a single Sunday at church.

Sure, there has been the occasional sickness or other force out of my control that kept me from attending. But if I'm able to go, I do. And have since college.

I don't miss church because I'm too tired or don't feel like it, even though both have been the case plenty of times, believe you me. I think I feel that sleeping in or choosing something else - even something nice to reading the Bible - is choosing myself over God. Or maybe choosing God on my own terms and what's convenient for how I feel on that particular morning.

I wish I could say that commitment comes entirely from within but that wouldn't be the full truth. Attending church every Sunday is a requirement for Catholics. It used to be seen as a requirement for all Christians.

Should it still be? That question has gotten a lot of attention in the last week thanks to Donald Miller's blog post, "I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere." In it, he basically argues that attending church, for various reasons, really just isn't that important. Naturally this has invited a lot of Christian responses, so many, in fact, that it prompted a second post by Miller clarifying and defending the first.

Miller was attacked for his arguments, which, in truth, weren't initially explained very well and seem to ignore a lot of shared Christian experience. I do admire Miller. He slams "tribal" and "binary" thinking, both being rampant within modern Christianity. He tends to be thoughtful, open, sincere, and unafraid to question the status quo. When I met and helped interview him in 2008, I liked him immediately for these reasons. But I think Miller and prominent Christian responses to him (links at the end of this post) seem to miss some important ideas in the conversation.

Miller doesn't claim to offer a model for other Christians to follow but given his prominence and popularity, for better or worse, he really can't escape that role. People read him in hopes of learning how to be better Christians and human beings. So when he reduces local churches to places "where people find spiritual security through communion with both God and a local tribe" and attending church to "attending a lecture and hearing a singing," he's bound to ruffle some feathers.

Miller expressed that he simply doesn't get anything out of attending church: the "lectures" are boring and the "singing" doesn't connect with him emotionally.  Of course this fueled responses of "church isn't about you, it's about God." Miller responds by saying that sentiment is "a nice cliche," though he does admit it has "some basis in Scripture."

Perhaps the biggest critique was against Miller's argument-from-feelings. He says that he just connects with God much better outside of traditional church services, through writing and through running his business. It would be easy to write this off (and I initially did) but I think there's actually something to it. Why can't people connect with God outside of church? Why can't God's way of speaking to you be through your dancing, writing, business acumen, parenting, running, - the things God has gifted you to do? The answer of course is that God can speak to you through these things, and perhaps even primarily does. The essential matter that Miller misses is that that fact does not preclude the necessity of participation in a real, physical church.

A lot of responses have tried to shame Miller into attending church out of a sense of duty. There's something to be said for duty when it comes to church but if being part of the Body of Christ comes down to duty, our faith must be a a very poor one, and Miller, to his credit, easily recognizes this.

The Larger Questions

The larger questions that are touched on but not explicitly stated in the conversation are about how "church," the Body of Christ, God's dwelling place, and sabbath are all defined and what they actually mean. These are difficult questions, too large to fully dive into here. But it's probably worth noting that for many Christians, the physical building and the actual people constitute a visible and immediate "church" in which we are indeed called to participate. For Miller and many others, "church" has a much more mystical definition where the Body and God's presence is recognized everywhere, sometimes more fully. Miller uses the language of an 'evolving faith' to describe how he no longer has to connect with God or a traditional church community. Again, I do like Miller, but this is a little insulting. He fails to see that we are called to see God first and foremost in the people right before us and in the present moment. Once you see God's presence in your fellow Christians and in your local church, then you can see and understand that God's presence indeed goes beyond them. To Miller's credit he seems to have reached a point of growth where God is not confined within the church walls. Yes - good! But contrary to Miller's view, there are plenty of Christians who have reached those higher levels who still choose to attend church. Throughout history they almost always have. Why?

I think it's because the Christian faith and our salvation are communal by nature. This is what it means to be a part of an indivisible Body. Of course one can have Christian community outside of attending church. Of course God can't be contained in a box. Of course you can connect with God in ways that are unique to you. But if our Triune God is ultimately loving relationship in the Trinity, then we must live that way as well. And unfortunately for Miller, I think God's view of church involves living that relationship with people who sometimes bore you, who sing off key, who try your patience, and may be at different levels of spiritual understanding than you. I think a physical church is not only instituted by God and encouraged by St. Paul but actually healthy for us. By insisting he can opt out of a community that doesn't seem to fit, Miller exposes a very American way of viewing church as something primarily to be consumed. Miller doesn't ask what affect his non-attendance has on others. He doesn't think about the ways in which he's called to bless others in that building.

The Way Out?

I don't mean to pick on Miller; he's just a momentary representative of sentiments a lot of us feel. I sympathize with a lot of his thoughts (the preaching at masses is notoriously terrible nationwide), and a lot of his critiques are true.

But I think it's a close relationship with the Body that Miller forgets, not only the Body we choose for ourselves among our friends and colleagues who share our interests but especially the Body we don't choose for ourselves (something I've written about before). Regular participation in a physical church community is the surest way to get us out of what C. S. Lewis calls our "solitary conceit" that we can have the good Christian life exactly as we'd design it for ourselves.

Such a view leaves no room for community. If we're honest, we wouldn't choose to be in relationship with most of the people we encounter at our local church. And that's the point. It images God's choice for relationship with us, imperfect and bumbling as we are. This relationship to our local church community - like any familial relationship - will involve emotions and feelings but in addition to a commitment that transcends our subjective feelings. Our faith gives us relationship in community designed around the needs of community AND relationship to God on our own designed around our own needs. Being a Christian isn't about choosing one or the other. We can choose both/and. And we should choose both, as often as we should choose love.

Other Perspectives on This Subject:

Donald Miller (original post) | I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere
Sarah Bessey | In which I think community is worth intention :: or, why I still 'go to' church
Ed Stetzer | Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Why We Should Choose Church Anyway