Tuesday, September 24, 2013


My father was 50 when I was born.

Though he always seemed young to me, this admittedly made for a rather unique upbringing.

There were drawbacks, of course. We didn't do too many active things together, for instance. We probably had less in common than younger parents might have with their children. And there always seemed to be a social stigma attached to having older parents somehow, especially among my peers in grade school; the question, "Is that your grandfather?" got rather old. The worst thing was (and is) the knowledge that there are certain life events that I may not be able to share with my parents.

But there are advantages as well. By the age of 50, most folks have gotten over the bulk of life's trivialities, and also a good many of its more serious distractions. Or at least, if they're going to, it's likely going to happen before this point. For me, this meant that the great majority of my father's poor decisions were behind him well before I came along, while the wisdom gleaned from those decisions remained. It also meant that he had the opportunity to meet my mother, and to become the kind of person that she would have. And perhaps most significantly, it meant that he had the time to recognize his need for Jesus, and to commit his life to him. That last, of course, changes everything.

And so I grew up, with an older father than any of my friends, but also without many of the issues that a lot of my friends had to deal with. I am convinced these two things are linked. In fact, I sometimes wonder if there shouldn't be a minimum age requirement for parenting.1

Now, it's well known that Jesus often referred to God as "Father," as did the Jewish tradition before Him (though He arguably personalized it a good deal). And the church has always taken God's paternal relationship to us very seriously. However, a lot of folks have a hard time with seeing God this way. This is understandable, because a lot of earthly fathers are truly awful. Whereas fatherhood, like all loving human relationships, was meant to reveal something to us about what God is like, for many, fatherhood has only taught pain and disappointment. Thus, their ability to understand God, and know Him as He desires to be known, is seriously impaired.

I have never had this problem. When I think of God as Father, I immediately recognize generosity, kindness, sacrifice, gentleness, a desire for justice, charity. I also see honor, discipline, wisdom, a shrewdness earned by long experience dealing with the world, a quickness to express love, and a heart that I know would do anything for me. I am able to see all these things in my heavenly Father because I first learned to recognize them in my earthly father. And unlike most, I was able to recognize them all from an early age, because my father was in the appropriate stage of life to exhibit them for me.

All that to say, I am continually immensely grateful for the father God chose to give me. I call him "Daddy." It is admittedly an intimate title, but it is also mature, somehow, and carries an element of respect (this may be a southern thing).2 I'm even grateful that God waited as long as He did to give us to one another, as I would undoubtedly be a different person if He hadn't. And I like who I am. What's more, I know my Daddy (and my Father) does, too, because he (and He) tells me so regularly.

Today, Daddy turns 76. I'm thankful for the years we've had together, and I pray for many more before the ole' mortal coil is shuffled off. But mostly I'm thankful that he has always loved me so well. Because of this, I am able to approach the One who is Love, unencumbered by any distortions or perversions of what love looks like, or what fatherhood is meant to reveal.

I wouldn't trade that for anything.

Happy birthday, Daddy.

1 At least until we learn (remember) how to submit our lives--including our parenting--to one another in Christian community. But that's a blog for another time.

2 In case you're wondering why I don't include a discussion of "Abba" here, it's because the Abba-Daddy connection seems to be a myth.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Incarnation and the Anthropic Principle

I made the image a bit bigger than usual this time so you could see it better. It still isn't quite big enough. What it says there in the red is "Local Superclusters." That means that that tiny little piece of the universe contains the "superclusters" that are in our "neighborhood." To give you some perspective, a supercluster is (appropriately) a group of clusters, which in turn is a group of galaxies. Within these "local superclusters" is one called the "Virgo Supercluster," which contains the "Local Galactic Group," which contains our Milky Way galaxy. Within the galaxy, our "interstellar neighborhood" lies on the outskirts of one of the Milky Way's spiral arms, and within that neighborhood is our solar system, i.e. our sun and (now eight) planets. The distance from earth to the nearest star in our interstellar neighborhood other than our own sun—called "Proxima Centauri"—is 4.243 light years. That means it takes light over four years to get from there to here. In case you forgot, nothing in the universe is faster than light (that we know of). The distance from us to something like another supercluster is too vast to even begin to comprehend.

Obviously, the universe is pretty stinking big. Big enough, in fact, to make one wonder how humans could ever have thought they had a significant place in it. This is perhaps especially true for Christians, who, historically, have not only thought we were significant, but the very purpose of the universe. Heck, we even had a hard time letting go of the idea that we weren't the center of it. 1

Now, a lot of folks (theists, mostly, but others too) have noted that as big as the universe is, things in it sure seem to be just right for life to occur. Take the "cosmological constant," for example. It is one of a list of about 26 or so " fundamental constants." These are basically values describing things like how fundamental particles interact in the universe, and the important thing is that they have to be very precise in order for the universe to permit life. If the cosmological constant, for example, were changed by one part in 10120, no life. The others are similarly mind-boggling.

In response to these numbers, and the claims of theists that they suggest something about our place in the universe, astronomers came up with what is now called the "anthropic principle." I don't really want to go into a lot of detail here about what exactly that means, or the various versions of the principle and how they affect theism. For that, I recommend this paper. 2

Basically, the principle says that in order to observe the conditions required for our existence (like we do with the constants), we have to already be existing in a universe compatible with our existence.

Pretty simple right? Of course, atheists want to use this rather obvious observation as a weapon against theists who use fine-tuning arguments, and then theists have to make a bunch of clarifications and use fun thought experiments like in that paper I just cited. 3

I, however, want to do something completely different.

When atheists use the anthropic principle to attack theists, they are ultimately saying that we shouldn't be surprised that we exist or that our appearance in the universe needs no explanation, certainly no divine one. In effect, we are utterly insignificant in the vast, empty blackness that is our universe.

In response to this, I suggest that instead of replying by trying to correct their use of the anthropic principle, we cut to the heart of their claim, and just agree with it.

Atheist: You Christians are so dumb. Don't you know that the size of the universe and the anthropic principle show conclusively that we are tiny, insignificant specks in the universe? We mean nothing.

Christian: I know right!?
Isn't it amazing that God chose to become one of us?!

See what I did there? The fact that we are relatively small, seemingly insignificant inhabitants of a cosmos so big we can't even think about it clearly, should not be a surprise to Christians. I've written here before about incarnation. It is the very center of the Christian worldview, and it means, crudely, that God loved us so much that He voluntarily relinquished His position as creator and sustainer of that whole vast conglomerate in that picture up there, so that He could become a human being. Someone who itches and poops and gets sick and dies. The very thought is scandalous. We (the church) have been thinking about it for over 2,000 years now, and we still find it hard to believe.

Some atheist telling us the universe is big and that we shouldn't be surprised to be observing it really isn't big news to us.

So to the atheist who likes to use the anthropic principle to bash Christians: we already know God must love us an awful lot. But thanks for reiterating our point!

1 In case you're thinking, "Well, in that picture, it sure looks like we might be in the center of the whole thing," remember that that's the observable universe, which happens to look pretty much the same, regardless of where we point our telescopes. Naturally, if the universe is bigger than we can see, then when we chart the part we can see, it will look like we're in the center. Actually, this might not be a bad illustration of the anthropic principle...something like, "Since the universe is so big that any part of it we see will place us in the middle, we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves there..."

2 In it, Craig helpfully separates the Anthropic Principle, which is a kind of meta-scientific claim, from what he calls the "Anthropic Philosophy," which adds claims to the Principle, such as that the fine-tuning of the universe ought not surprise us. Here's an excerpt:

Now it needs to be emphasized that what the Anthropic Philosophy does not hold, despite the sloppy statements on this head often made by scientists, is that our existence as observers explains the basic features of the universe. The answer to the question "Why is the universe isotropic?" given by Collins and Hawking, ". . . the isotropy of the Universe is a consequence of our existence," is simply irresponsible and brings the Anthropic Philosophy into undeserved disrepute, for literally taken, such an answer would require some form of backward causation whereby the conditions of the early universe were brought about by us acting as efficient causes merely by our observing the heavens. But WAP neither asserts nor implies this; rather WAP holds that we must observe the universe to possess certain features (not that the universe must possess certain features) and the Anthropic Philosophy says that therefore these features ought not to surprise us or cry out for explanation. The self-selection effect affects our observations, not the basic features of the universe itself. If the Anthropic Philosophy held that the basic features of the universe were themselves brought about by our observations, then it could be rightly dismissed as fanciful. But the Anthropic Philosophy is much more subtle: it does not try to explain why the universe has the basic features it does, but contends that no explanation is needed, since we should not be surprised at observing what we do, our observations of those basic features being restricted by our own existence as observers. 
3 See my own brief treatment of it here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What does it mean to "fear" God?

The Bible says a lot about fear. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to make sense of some of it. Or at least, it can be difficult for me, and I'm guessing I'm not alone.

What really trips me up is all the stuff the Bible says about fearing God. In case you haven't checked lately, it's in favor of it. Big time. Here are a few examples:

  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. 1
  • But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. 2
  • The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. 3
  • He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. 4
  • The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. 5

And it's not just the Old Testament either:

  • His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 6
  • “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." 7
  • Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. 8

Getting the picture?

What I struggle with is how to understand this mass9 of verses in light of other things the Bible says about fear. Things like this:

  • There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 10
  • For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 11
  • For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 12

In addition to all this, pastor/teacher types throw around statements about fearing God all the time. Unfortunately, I don't recall ever hearing a good explanation (or even a bad one) for what fearing God means. We get a lot about its results and why we ought to do it, but not much about what it is. Take this Oswald Chambers quote for example: "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else." 13 He gives us no help in figuring out what fearing God is, and so leaves himself open to responses like this one from an atheist blogger:

There was a time when I thought that all non-Christians lived their life in constant fear. Fear of the future, fear of death, fear that they would be wrong in the end and have to face judgment. I now know this to be a lie. It is a lie spread by Christianity in order to protect itself from unbelief. If believers think that without god there is only fear, they will be less likely to question their beliefs. When I see something like the [Chambers] quote it makes me wish...I could tell them that, no, I don’t fear everything. I don’t fear god. I don’t fear death. 14

The atheist makes a good point: if "fear" here means what it normally means in popular vernacular, then Chambers is just wrong. Atheists don't have to fear everything in that sense.

But is that the sense in which the Bible means we should "fear" God?

I don't think so.

So what does it mean then? It is tempting to interpret it as "having a reverential respect and sense of incredible awe towards Yahweh’s powers." In fact, that is exactly how another theist-turned-atheist blogger interprets it. She continues,

If you think your deity is perfect, good, loving, and can do anything for you that you ask for, then I can see how the world and our struggles might appear less daunting or intimidating. If I had Superman in my back pocket, I’d feel pretty safe. 15

You see the problem with this interpretation? It puts the focus of the fear on God's power, presumably His power to control our circumstances or protect us from bad things or perhaps "smite" those He chooses (see image).

I agree with this atheist, too, that this kind of fear is unacceptable. I think, however, that there is another alternative.

Now, I'm not (yet) a theologian in the academic sense, nor do I have any credentials that qualify me to speak authoritatively on ancient Judaic conceptions of God or fear. However, I recently had a chat with a friend about what it means to fear God, and afterward he suggested I write about it here so other people could benefit from my perspective. So here it is, for what it's worth.

My current working definition of the "fear of God" as it is used in both the Old and New Testaments is something like, "recognizing God's nature and my relation to it." This is "fearful" because when I see how loving and good He is, I simultaneously see how far short I fall of that, or even of desiring that, and that unless I can learn to love what He is, I am doomed.

Notice that this is entirely consistent (so far as I can tell) with all the verses about fear above. In fact, His being Love (see 1 John 4:8) entails this: since love is the most real thing in the universe
and, I would argue, the only sort of relationship that is possible with Godif I refuse to participate with Him in a love relationship, then the only other option (logically) is my separation from Him. And since He made me and sustains me in existence, this is just my destruction.

Further, since I am currently not fully acclimated to His being/presence (i.e. love), it can be very uncomfortable to be around Him. Hence the "fear."

Note that on my interpretation fear is not an integral part of our love relationship with God, nor is it a result of reflection on His "smiting power." Rather, it is a second-order (that is, after-the-fact reflection) realization of the difference between God's nature and my own desires. On my definition, I reflect (based on experiences with the divine nature) on God's love, and realize that in order to be compatible with it, my desires will have to change, and that this will likely involve suffering. The only other option, however, is voluntary destruction. This realization then produces fear, but it is a fear which motivates (or should motivate) action to transform (hence, it makes sense to say that it is the beginning of wisdom). 

Thus, my "fear" of God would result, not from any essential inconsistency in our beings or from His ability to punish me, but from the current state of my will/desire, shaped as it is by the history of humanity's sin, along with my own. I recognize that what I want and what He is are very different, and yet I simultaneously recognize that what I need is Him. Reflection on this then produces fear. But that fear is always temporary and always dispelled as love increases, and my nature/desire is more closely aligned with His.

I, for one, find this interpretation both satisfying and provocative. It also avoids the objections so easily leveled against the other sort of interpretation we mentioned, as it isn't based on God's power or wrath but on His love. Join me in praying that those two atheists will encounter that love directly and be changed.

And let me know what you think!

1 Proverbs 1:7

2 Psalms 33:18-19

3 Psalms 34:7-11

4 Psalms 145:19-20

5 Psalms 147:11

6 Luke 1:50

7 Luke 12:4-5 This one is particularly interesting, as two verses later it says don't fear! Surely Jesus wasn't contradicting Himself!?

8 Philippians 2:12-13

9 For a much longer list, see here.

10 1 John 4:18

11 2 Timothy 1:7 Some translations use "fear" instead of "timidity," but for consistency I'm keeping the NIV here.

12 Romans 8:14-17

13 From "The Pilgrim's Song Book," available here.

14 Full post here.

15 Full post here.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Silly Things to Say..."Love the sinner; hate the sin."

Hold on to your hats folks; this one's bound to make me all kinds of new friends.

"Love the sinner! Hate the sin!"

This particular catchphrase is rather popular among the evangelical crowd, as well as outside it (as evidenced by its appearance on even Catholic church signs). It finds its most frequent application in discussions of homosexuality, where Christians are advised to take a public and vocal stand against the behavior of homosexuals (the "sin"), while embracing the homosexuals themselves (the "sinners"). 1 

However, fear not: I'll not be dealing with that controversial issue here.

Instead, I want to question the assumptions of the sentiment itself. I do not deny that it has somewhat prestigious beginnings. Apparently, its origins are in Augustine, though in a different form, and later it even gets quoted favorably by Gandhi. 2 

Nonetheless, I think it's a worthless, and often offensive, thing to say. Here's why.

First, the saying often masks what is actually being communicated. While evoking thoughts of Christian love, it smuggles in the idea that such love is compatible with (or even entails) openly confronting what we take to be the sins of others. However, this idea has no grounds in scripture, and is in fact in direct opposition to the teaching and practice of Christ.

Now before I get a bunch of angry responses about how Jesus and Paul confronted sin, and how pointing out someone's sin is "the most loving thing you can do," let me clarify.

Those who use this cliché often confuse judgment and discernment. The Bible says a lot about both. In fact, the sin of judgmentalism is one of the most frequently mentioned sins in the New Testament. Here's a sampling of passages clearly condemning it:

Matt. 7:1-5
John 3:16-17
John 8:15
John 12:47-48
Rom. 2:1
Rom. 14:4-13
1 Cor. 4:3-5
James 4:11-12

The word translated as "judge" or "condemn" in these verses is "κρίνω," which means literally to separate or divide. Unfortunately, the Greek doesn't distinguish between the various senses of the word, and we are left to figure it out from context. Two such senses are "judgment," which is unilaterally condemned in the New Testament, and "discernment," which is often prescribed. Most English translations, however, just use the word "judge," which has produced all manner of confusion because Americans aren't generally fond of discerning intended meaning from context.

Here are some instances of κρίνω which would probably be more helpfully translated as "discern": 3

Luke 12:57
John 5:30
John 7:24
1 Cor. 5:12
1 Cor. 6:1-3 4

There are many differences between judgment and discernment that I could elucidate for you, but that would take us too far afield. Here it will suffice to point out that discernment deals with things (e.g. objects, ideas, etc.), while judgment deals with people. Additionally, their fruit is different: discernment creates compassion and closeness, while judgment creates revulsion and distance. The take-home point is that discernment is compatible with love; judgment is not. 5

Thus, another way to get at my point is to say that the platitude, "Love the sinner; hate the sin," pretends to encourage discernment, while in fact encouraging judgment. My evidence for this is that one almost never hears it uttered except from people who think we ought to be making a bigger deal of particular sins. People who really are focused on loving sinners have no need of the second half of the statement. It's only folks who need to make their hatred for sin public for some reason that bother saying this. In other words, only an urge to judge would compel anyone to say such a thing.

And this is a great irony indeed, for the sin of judgment is the first and greatest sin in the Bible, the very reason Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, and the only thing God saw fit to forbid them. It was for the "knowledge of good and evil" that we fell. It was for the ability to judge for ourselves what was right.

Hopefully, the danger of this adage is becoming clear. If not, I have one more criticism. 6

While the first criticism was about the motivation for using the cliché, this second is more about its theoretical assumptions. What I mean is that it suggests that sin is somehow separable from the sinner.

Now, again, some clarification is in order. I am of course not suggesting that sin is what we are at our most basic level. If that were true, then redemption would be impossible, as there wouldn't be anything to redeem us to. No, the Bible is very clear that we were made good and beautiful and valuable, bearers of love and the image of our Creator. Sin is a later accretion, and one that Jesus died to rid us of.

What I am saying is that in our fallen state, it makes no sense to distinguish between sin and the sinner. To speak of one is to speak of the other. This phrase is only applied (or at least, only rightly applied) to those outside the church. After all, those inside are already redeemed. So, when Paul says things like "Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it," 7 it makes sense because he has been redeemed, and is now separated from his sin nature. The sinful part of him is the part that still lives "according to the flesh," rather than "according to the Spirit." 8

But to speak of a sinner as separate from her sin when she is not yet "in Christ" is nonsensical. What makes her a sinner is that she sins. Continually, habitually, without hope for change or knowledge that she needs it. For all intents and purposes, she is her sin. Again, this is not meant metaphysically (at least not by me), but soteriologically. This is what the reformers meant by saying that prior to Christ, we are all "dead in our sins." 

Søren Kierkegaard notes that sin is a "state," and that it "enters" the human race anew with every individual decision to sin. 9 A "state" is just a way of beinga condition or modeof a thing at a given time. So the sin of a sinner prior to redemption is just one description of what the sinner is. She is, in her sinful state, defined by her choices, since her own will is still set before the will of God. This is just what it means to be "in sin."

So, in addition to being a smokescreen for our own judmentalism, this slogan is actually theologically vacuous.


Lastly, isn't there just something about it that doesn't quite feel right anyway? When I read the New Testament, I see Jesus surrounded by sinnerstax collectors, prostitutes, drunkardsthe very sort of people that are usually on the receiving end of judgment by the religious type. And yet these people flocked to Jesus of their own volition. They liked being around him. This leads me to ask, "How come they don't like being around us?" We are His bride after all, meant to represent Him until He comes back.

Might it be because we can't stop hating the sin long enough to actually start loving the sinner?

1 I'm sure it also gets applied in other contexts, but it is telling that this is by far the most common.

2 See here: http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/who-said-love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin

3 I don't mean to here suggest that the translators are in error; who am I to stand in judgment over them (pun very much intended)? I am merely suggesting that for theological purposes, it is more helpful to read these verses as connoting discernment, which is positive, rather than judgment, which is negative.

4 These verse lists were drawn (mostly) from a 2002 sermon series by Greg Boyd on love and judgment. That series can be found here. See especially the third sermon in the series. Highly recommended.

5 This does not, however, mean that discernment should always be expressed. In fact, if it is to be consistent with love, it almost always should not be. (One important point here is that commands such as "speak the truth to one another in love," etc., are written in the context of small house churches, made up of people who are committed to discipling one another in every area of life. But that is a blog for another time. See sermon series just mentioned.)

6 I should perhaps note that the following is purely my own thought, and so may be a bit more controversial than the preceding. Nonetheless, I think I am on solid ground.

7 Romans 7:20 (but see whole chapter)

8 See Romans 8.

9 See his Concept of Anxiety.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Dealing with Mormon Missionaries...the Christian Way

The doorbell rings. You peek out the window. You see the white shirts, black ties, and funny little name tags. What do you do? Hide? Say you're not interested? Tell them what church you go to, as though that settles it?

If you're a Christian, and you think things like right belief are important, you might invite them in, and start a conversation about all the differences between your theological traditions.

Often, in fact, this last is recommended by those in the business of "anti-cult" ministry, who see things like visits from Mormon missionaries as opportunities for "reverse evangelism," if you will. One needn't look too hard to find all sorts of recommendations on how to handle such encounters. Things like "What to say to Mormons when they come to your door," or "10 questions to ask Mormons," or "3 Bible verses to bring up with Mormon missionaries."

The assumption, of course, is that the proper way to approach the situation is to get into a doctrinal dispute. Sure, these folks will sometimes recommend that you be polite or tactful or do it in "love," but the goal is the same: do everything you can to make the missionaries doubt their faith, and move towards your own.

I used to think this way, too. In fact, I relished any opportunity to engage in theological tit-for-tat with someone of another doctrinal persuasion, confident as I was of my argumentative skills. I once even chased down a pair of Mormon missionaries to set up a time to talk. During the conversation, which lasted several hours, I actually made one of them cry. I later bragged about it. It makes me sick to think about.

This just isn't the way that Jesus approached people He was trying to win. If they cried around Him, it was because they saw that He didn't judge them (Luke 7:36-50), or because of their own failure to merit His affection (Luke 22:61-62). It was always related to His overwhelming love. It was never because He had cornered them on some subtle theological point.*

I am told that one of the main reasons the Mormon church has such a large and organized missionary base, and why missionaries are sent at the age they are (most are about 20), is for the personal spiritual growth of the missionaries themselves. This is not to say that the church isn't really interested in expansion, merely that they recognize that everyone's faith must be tested, and that an extended period of wrestling with and sharing one's faith at a formative time of life is extremely effective at solidifying one's convictions.

In light of this, I suggest that the most Christian means of response ("Christian" does, after all, mean "like Jesus") to Mormon missionaries (and others) is to meet them on their own terms. Instead of picking a fight, or trying to get them to backpedal, or to admit to some shady piece of their religious history, we might try helping them along in their endeavor. We could get on board with their own church's goal of personal spiritual formation, and seek to minister to these missionaries. After all, there are probably plenty of other hard-nosed evangelicals trying to make life difficult for them. Why not be a source of comfort and encouragement instead? I suspect that this will go much farther toward bringing them closer to Jesus than any argument.

What's more, you can't have it both ways. It is tempting to think that we can still confront their errant beliefs while being compassionate and tender. And in some contexts, we surely can. But so long as we make what they believe our primary concern, rather than Who they know, we betray our true motives. We prove by our conduct that we are more concerned with whether they agree with us than with what's actually important to them, and might have potential to make them more Christlike.

Imagine how these encounters could be transformed if our perspective was, "How can I serve these people?" "How can I encourage them in the things we do agree on?" "How can I assist them in what must be a trying period of life?" "How can I pray for them?" "How can I learn from them?"

Give it a shot, and see if God doesn't show up and do something cool. I wish I had.

* Though He was not afraid to do this as well. The catch, however, is that it was always with those who already claimed to know God, and always with the purpose of moving them towards a more genuine relationship with Him. Thus, in His frequent disputes with the religious leaders, He often cornered them both with their desire to remain consistent within their own theological assumptions (Matt. 22:41-46), and with His ability to cut through their false motives to the root of their issue (Luke 10:25-37). The Pharisees are not analogous to Mormons because the Pharisees were the "keepers of the law," the interpreters of what counted as "orthodox." It is very likely that their theology and Jesus' were actually quite similar. Their problem was in sacrificing the "spirit" of the law for its form. A more accurate contemporary comparison would be to evangelicals, and particularly the "anti-cult" folks themselves. The Pharisees were the "heresy hunters" of their day. Significantly, whoever the heretical groups of the time were, we don't find Jesus engaging them on doctrinal matters.

Friday, May 31, 2013

How Not to Do Sunday School (or, Come on Guys, What Are We Doing?)

For a long time now, I've been terribly frustrated by the way that we—and here I mean "we" as in the American (mostly evangelical) church—do Sunday School.

I should clarify for those readers not familiar with this uniquely American (though it didn't start here) institution: "Sunday School" is a generic term for some sort of religious instruction that takes place at a church on Sunday, since that is the day most Christian churches hold their regular services. At least, that is about the best one can hope for from a dictionary definition. The reality is actually much sadder. Typically, Sunday School amounts to anything that goes on in a church building on a Sunday that takes place in something resembling a classroom. It is more or less a blanket term for whatever happens regularly but isn't part of the main service of a church. That whole "religious instruction" bit is optional at this point.

You can probably see where this is going.

There is a glaring double standard that pervades the way most churches do Sunday School. At least, this is the case in probably every instance I've personally encounteredexperience that spans at least three major theological traditions—and from what I can tell from the testimony of others, it is probably ubiquitous, at least among the more evangelical traditions.

The double standard is this: the expectations that we have for our religious or spiritual instruction are very different from the expectations that we have for our instruction in nearly every other area of life, whether professional or civic or artistic or even recreational. That is, they are much lower.

Think about it: consider the level of education or training that you would accept as making someone an authority (enough to teach) in any of the areas I just mentioned. What sort of qualification, for example, do you require of someone in your own discipline? If you're a stockbroker, what would it take for someone to come into your workplace and give a seminar, and for you to sit and listen attentively to that person, engage her in discussion, get clarity on finer points, etc.? If you're a medical doctor, what do you require of someone who proposes to instruct you on developments in medicine? If you're an academic, what level of education do you require of someone in some area before you're willing to accept their position on some issue as reasonable and worthy of critical attention? If you're a mechanic, how much automotive knowledge do you expect in your colleagues? Or even in non-professional areas: what level of training would you expect of a teacher if you wanted to take up a new hobby, or learn a new sport or musical instrument? And this goes for our expectations of people in fields other than our own as well: we go to the doctors/mechanics/stockbrokers/professors/whatever who have the best training, most experience, and best professional reputation.

So whyWHY—do we accept instruction in our religious traditions, our spiritual lives, and our sacred texts from people with no formal training and no special expertise or experience in those areas?

Seriously. Why?

It's like when we expanded Sunday School to include adults, we neglected to raise the level of instruction. We seem to forget that the people in these classrooms are mature, thinking adults, many of them professionals with high levels of competency in complex and technical fields, many of them well-read and erudite in areas other than Christianity. Isn't it odd that we "teach" them like they can barely read the Bible in front of them? Isn't it a little offensive?

If I walked into your place of work and offered to teach you about whatever it is you do without presenting evidence of any kind of qualification, would you take me seriously? Do the people in your workplace typically rotate who plays the role of supervisor on a given day? No? But this is exactly what happens in most churches when it comes to teaching the Bible and what it means to live a Christian life. And if we really believe the basic claims of our shared faith—such as that the truths in our book are the most important truths in the universe—isn't our situation even worse, even stranger than the hypothetical situations I've given?

So I ask again: why do we do this?

Well (surprise, surprise), I have a theory. I think it's because we assume that spiritual subjects—and especially study of the Bible—are equally accessible to everybody, and require no special experience for mastery. At least, this is the only way I can think of to make sense of the way we run our Sunday School classes. How else could we justify the presumed ability of almost anyone who has been in church a sufficient amount of time to teach such classes?

But why think this? What makes the spiritual disciplines different from other disciplines? Where do we get this assumption? We certainly don't get it from the Bible itself.1 Nor do we get it from church history. In both, we find teachers consistently held to a high standard, and education and training highly valued.

I suspect that this assumption comes from a misapplication of an idea that dates back at least to the Protestant Reformation: the idea that all Christians have equal access to God, without the need for a mediator (other than Christ), an idea generally referred to as the "priesthood of all believers," since it is an implicit rejection of Catholic hierarchy. But this is a doctrine meant to affirm that in Christian practices related to one's relationship to Godsuch as worship, communion, confession, baptism, etc.—we don't need a class above the average Christian for administration. In other words, it is a rejection of any essential difference between the laity and the clergy. But of course nothing in this idea implies that just anyone is qualified to teach the truths of our faith or how we should interpret scripture.

To paraphrase one of my favorite biblical scholars, Gordon Fee (co-author of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, which I highly recommend), we understand that if we can't read the original biblical languages, we are dependent on those who can (the translators). But we often fail to realize that we are equally dependent on others for interpreting it, or learning how to read it (i.e. biblical scholars, textual critics, etc.). And we should, I would think, expect no less expertise from the latter as we do from the former.

Of course, there are exceptions to this lazy, thoughtless way of doing Sunday School. For example, philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig teaches a Sunday School class at his church in basically the same way he would teach an introductory seminary course.2 He expects that those who choose to take it will be intelligent, competent adults who want to actually grapple with the deeper elements of their faith and be challenged to learn its nuances and its difficulties, rather than come together for a weekly agree-with-each-other session. Sadly, however, classes like this are still the rare exception. More often, congregants are given a selection that sounds more like a listing of high school social cliques than anything resembling an educational system: "singles," "married," "youth," "college-age," "men," "women," etc. Even when the classes are grouped topically, it's rare that any formal qualification is required of the teacher. And subjects that might be considered "academic," but that would actually be beneficial—such as church doctrine, church history, theology, hermeneutics, or even informed Christian social engagementare rarely offered at all.

So if what I've described here sounds a little too familiar, I encourage you to bring it up at your next Sunday School class. I know that has potential to be a stressful conversation, but shouldn't we be holding ourselves to a higher standard? Isn't our faith at least as important as our jobs or hobbies? Shouldn't we take it at least as seriously?

Come on, guys.

1 See, for example, passages like 1 Cor. 14:20, Hebrews 5:12-14, and James 3:1.

2 His class is available on podcast here.