Sunday, July 18, 2010

Theology, one word at a time

We are often asked to describe something - our life, our ambitions, ourselves - in a limited number of words. Sometimes one, sometimes two, maybe three. Ernest Hemingway is famous for his six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never used," and the idea has inspired many similar efforts across literature and the internet. This interest in distilling something - ourselves, a story - into its smallest possible form is strong and widespread, because it requires every word to count - discarding only the most essential of essentials, to arrive at the purest essence of its subject. Pondering this, I thought it would be interesting to write my theology in one word, then two, then three, and so on, as a unique (and hopefully helpful) way of expressing the most important aspects of my faith, and going outward from there. Each summary must stand on its own, without its surroundings, and be true to my beliefs. The first word is easy, since I've titled my creed of sorts a "Theology of Love." So I'll start there. This, I hope, will be a work in progress, hopefully improving (and not just growing) as I go. Getting too long may start getting unweildly and not as useful, but thus far, figuring out what one word needs to be added is hard. We'll see.
  1. Love.
  2. Love everyone.
  3. God is love.
  4. Love God, all humanity.
  5. Love your neighbor above yourself.
  6. Always share God's love. By example.
  7. Love everyone perfectly. Any failure is sin.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (and me)

This is cross-posted from my Tumblr, because it ended up being substantial enough to justify its own blog post.

I believe that there simply isn't definitive enough Biblical mandate against committed homosexual relationships to justify anything less than embracing our homosexual brothers and sisters as God created them, and loving them for who they are, and that there certainly isn't enough to justify excluding or condemning them.  I don't see sexuality as any different at the core than the issues of female clergy, abolition of slavery, or interracial marriage.  There is at least some scripture - applicable today or not - that can be interpreted as contradicting all of the above.  But there's a consensus on the last two, and generally at least extradenominational tolerance of the first, that just doesn't exist for sexuality yet.

The few scriptures on the issue are at best not definitive, and as I read them either ambiguous or not applicable. Taken against the central mandate of love, considering the integral part of a person that sexuality is and the witness of my gay and lesbian friends and acquaintances, Christian and non-Christian, I can't in good conscience condemn them for being born gay.  I am, in fact, convicted to love and embrace them and their sexuality.  Such action is doubly needed precisely because of the fear, condemnation, anger, and doublespeak directed at them by much of the church.  As a result of this, gay and lesbian Christians are too often alienated and distant from the church, Christianity, and Christ, for reasons that I believe are invalid.

In light of the Presbyterian general assembly voting earlier today to allow non-celibate gay clergy, I was asked on Facebook why I was in favor of the vote.  That's what I came up with, plus a little expansion.

It's certainly not the entirety of my views, and doesn't have the specifics.  My final essay for one of my classes, while somewhat dry, has more of them.  But it's a good summary and gist, which I think is helpful.

In regards to the assembly, they later voted to not discuss or vote on any changes to the definition of marriage, which was another of the proposals, and the gay clergy has to be approved by the churches (which a similar proposal failed at two years ago), but it's a step forward.  Objections or reconsiderations of the non-discussion vote are still theoretically possible, but there aren't any indicators of if that will happen.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Letting Go

Recently, I've been feeling stuck. I began this endeavor by dismantling the religion I inherited, discarding the parts that were inconsistent, or flew in the face of my experience, my relationships, or my reason. This left the remains of my inherited theology on the floor in pieces, largely because that worldview was very monolithic - it came as a package, questioned either as whole or not at all (as always, I've got another blog post about that). What I've picked up so far is, in a word, love.

Love for others, a respect for the world we live in, an obligation to care for those who need it, a mandate to put others before yourself. All of this comprises a huge part of what Jesus had to say while he was on this earth. But when I try to take this and set it up as my theology and continue as a Christian, I run into a problem.

Namely that being a Christian, at least to pretty much everyone who cares whether I call myself a Christian, isn't about that. At least, that's what it appears to me. Don't get me wrong - it's a very important part of being Christian. It's what you do as a Christian. It's what Christ calls us to do, what God demands of us. I've got that part down.

But it's not what determines your status as a Christian. What makes you a Christian (where I come from, anyway) is having a ticket to heaven. Because you can very well do all of those things I mentioned and not believe in God - I know, because that's functionally what I'm doing. So what makes me think I am a Christian?

I don't know. As I try to put together any coherent vision of salvation, it crumbles when I realize, for instance, that I don't really believe in Hell. And it's not helped by the fact that to this day, I still have no conception of what it really means to "believe in God" or "accept Jesus" or even "pray". I know what all of that looks like from the outside, and I know how to "do" it. But there's no soul to it - no meaning, no actual understanding. It's like a life-size model car, that by all appearances is just like all the other cars, but has no engine, no drivetrain, nothing that makes a car a car. A fantastic illustration of this is the cargo cults left behind by World War II.

The upshot of this is that what tenets of theology, what faith that I do have, if you can call it faith, are things that are supposed to be the result, but I don't have any of the motivations or underlying beliefs that are supposed to produce that result. I have built motivations and support for that result, independent of faith, divinity, God, or religion, on a very humanist basic conception of common human dignity. So when I go to try to figure out what to do with God, it's all just theology and salvation, and I keep running into things and people that tell me I'm wrong, I can't have arrived at this conclusion the way I did, my motivations are invalid, I just don't understand. They say that because of that lack of understanding, my wrong motivations, I don't see that homosexuality is a sin, people like me are going to Hell because I didn't go about it the right way, I can't just ignore that, I'm veering off of the highway of Christianity and getting lost in the woods, I don't love Jesus, I'm losing my faith, that's a slippery slope, and by the way evolution smells funny.

The problem is, for those kinds of purposes, I don't claim to be a Christian. In reality, I never really have been, and I've come to terms with that. I can't veer out of what I'm not in. And trying to jump into that kind of (part of?) Christianity is exactly where I don't want to go, because I've been there, and it blew up in my face. But every time I try to approach God or spirituality, all of that flares up again, because it's the only way I know how to try to deal with God. And it's all hollow, and has no significance or meaning to me, and again, much of it flies up against what I do know and believe, and I can't put together a coherent theology, because I do too many things "wrong". It's a problem.

I've talked to my girlfriend about this, as she has a much different relationship with God - one that is grown out of herself, her own experiences and beliefs, and not encumbered by all of the trappings that I run into. Her advice was basically to decide what you're going to do - find some way to figure out how God fits into this, or strike out as a secular moral humanist - and do it. If I'm going include God, do just that - and eschew the rest of it.

And as I sit here, with all of the text and processing above, that sounds like a very good option. So I'm going to try it. Bascially, saying "God, this love stuff? I'm trackin'. Love my neighbors? Care for the least of these? All of the beatitudes? I can get on board with that. The rest of this mangled wreck that is my dismantled religion, from which I've salvaged those precious few tenets? Not so much, and I don't care. It's behind me now, and I'm starting over with nothing but love."

That sounds good. Am I personally capable of doing that? Maybe so. Am I allowed to do that? Frankly, I don't really care. It's a struggle as much with my own internalized religion as it is with any external opinions or forces. And I'm fairly confident that if I am able to do it, it will only be if I refuse to be held to that scaffolded religion that I came out of, refuse to be questioned by it, and stop trying to reconcile it. That may (and probably does) come across as arrogant, dismissive, wrong, horrible, even sinful and blasphemous. But that's not my intention. I simply don't see any other way to move forward, because the more I look at it, the more I realize that what I'm doing isn't working, and I don't see a way to make it work.

I think I'm to the point where I simply can't fit the pieces of my former worldview back together, because it's broken, it's missing huge portions, and it was never intended to be taken as anything but a whole anyway. I have to, as David Bazan so eloquently put it, "let go of what I know and honor what exists." In fact, that song (Bearing Witness) keeps getting more accurate in describing what I'm dealing with that I'm just going to paste the lyrics in here, to finish out this post.

I clung to miracles I have not seen
From ancient autographs I can not read
And though I've repented I'm still tempted I admit
But it's not what bearing witness is

Too full of prophecy and fear to see
The revelation right in front of me
So sick and tired of trying to make the pieces fit
Because it's not what bearing witness is

When the gap between
What I hoped would be
And what is makes me weep for my kids
I take a cleansing breath and make a positive confession
But is that what bearing witness is

Though it may alienate your family
And blur the lines of your identity
Let go of what you know and honor what exists
Son, that's what bearing witness is
Daughter, that's what bearing witness is

Listen to it, it's good stuff, and pretty much sums it up better than I ever could.

Pre-emptive reponse note:I know there are those who will read this and end up with the reaction that I am falling away from the faith, I'm giving up, I'm being pulled in by the deception of the world or Satan or Seattle or gnosticism. For the first couple, I can say that I'm not. This is the only way I can see forward, and trying to put pieces together that are horribly broken and were never meant to fit without the whole anyway is futile. To the last point? If you want to think that, you can. You could be right. And if you are, and if God really cares enough about all of the periphery and structure that I'm putting behind me, you can trust that he'll confront me with it eventually. But pointing out where I'm stepping outside the bounds of Christianity, or where the Bible says I'm wrong, simply isn't going to be helpful or useful. Because it's me and love, trying to find this God that everyone keeps talking about, and that's it.

I do plan to be reading the Bible on the way, but being very aware that I've been trained well in how to read the Bible "right," and am aware of how that colors, frames, and distorts what God is actually trying to say. One thing I have learned is that Biblical literalism, and many understandings of inerrancy, get in the way of understanding what the Bible actually is trying to say, and I intend to read it with that in mind.

While I was typing this post, TweetDeck popped up Roger Ebert's latest tweet: "If a good man is refused heaven and a bad one let in because of a technicality in church law, that doesn't speak well of God." Appropriate.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Germany, Capitalism, Immigration, Sodom, and our "Christian Nation"

I've long been aware that the reason Sodom was in such trouble with God had little do to with their homosexual relations and a lot to do with their vicious inhospitality, but the other day, I came across a good summary of scripture, Jewish writings, and historical documents that bear that out. I posted it on my tumblr and Facebook, the latter of which resulted in the following question:

"Why the cheap shot at Arizonans? Especially given the fact that the controversial law is essentially equivalent to a federal law already on the books?"

And I had to admit, the cheap shot at Arizona was somewhat unfair. I was going to add a disclaimer that I'm still a keeping a careful eye on the Arizona law, and don't condemn it as strongly as many do, which is true, and which I did.

And to answer the question, I wrote this blog post. Because I want to be clear, and the issue at hand is much bigger than a law that Arizona passed. In fact, I would be glad to generalize my criticism to the country in general, and have amended my Tumblr post accordingly. So, my answer:

I was referring not solely to the new law, but to the general attitude it belies and embodies: protecting our country's precious and supposedly self-earned resources from invaders from neighboring nation - the assumption that what we have earned is solely our own, and we have no obligation to share it with others or care for the stranger, because we earned all that we have.

As Josephus wrote:

"They no more remembered the benefits that they had received from [God], hated foreigners and declined all intercourse with others"
And the rabbi at the bottom:
"The men of Sodom had no consideration for the honour of their Owner by not distributing food to the wayfarer and stranger, but they even fenced in all the trees on top above their fruit so that so that they should not be seized; not even by the bird of heaven"

We, neither as a country nor as the state of Arizona, have obviously not quite gone to this extreme. But Sodom is a cautionary extreme - a parable of sorts - that cautions against the rugged and jealous individualism and entitlement that was exemplified, and which is prevalent in modern America to a great extent.

In my opinion, if we are to be a "Christian nation," we cannot stand for this conception that what we earn is our own, that we deserve all that we have, firstly because it is patently false, on an individual and national level, and secondly because Scripture strongly condemns it.

That doesn't necessarily make for good business, and it doesn't work well if you run a nation that prides itself in its power, independence, and economic status, but that doesn't mean Scripture is wrong.

I believe that Christians should be intensely focused on caring for the poor, sick, and needy, with less concern for yourself than for your neighbor. You don't have to believe that we need to do this as a nation, but I don't see how you can call it a Christian nation if you don't.

I recently came across an article about Germany's capitalism, which I don't know anything about besides this article, but from what I read seems more in line with being a Christian nation that practices capitalism than our dear old US of A. They have an extensive social safety net, much more so than the US. And it's expensive, but that's an expense that Germany is willing to bear.

The conservative concern with big government, overspending, and general ineptitude is a valid one, and one that I don't dismiss. But personally, I would prefer to have a country that overspends and is inefficient, but has an effective safety net for our citizens (as a start) and welcomes immigrants as those see how our country treats its citizens and want to join it. This is a better end goal, I believe, than one that is fiscally sound and has all its books balanced, but leaves people to fend for themselves, asserting that they should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, regardless of their family or environment, and looks upon immigrants as a drain on our economy that we deal with by making them jump through a long process of hoops, and then hunts down the ones that fail to jump through all the hoops.

I realize that there are many immigrants that are here as drug mules and part of the narcotics trade, and those that are violent offenders. But I believe that those issues should be dealt with by dealing with those issues - not by cracking down on all immigrants, regardless of their involvement with the drug trade or violent tendencies, who didn't manage to make it through the immigration process. I don't have any personal experience with it, but the accounts that I've seen and the huge berth of attorneys who specialize solely in immigration issues testify to a long, arduous, and overcomplicated system that is broken in many ways.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A defense of social constructivism

I recently wrote an essay for one of my classes, and this paragraph turned out particularly well, something that even my professor pointed out, so I thought I would post it here, since it's very relevant to my struggles with faith and morality, as I find myself functionally being more of a moral humanist than anything else.

The idea that morality is built up from society, tradition, and experience of humanity over time seems much more appropriate than an absolute but obfuscated rulebook being handed down as the foundation of morality. I don't see why there is implicit authority in imposing a morality from a religion, whose particular conception of morality tends to change over time as the rest of culture and humanity change, despite supposedly being handed as absolute from on high. If God were a being that interacted with the world in direct, clear, and universally recognizable ways, there would be a good reason for religion to have a special claim on morality. But in this world, there is at best indirect, abstract, uncertain interaction between the divine and humanity. So to the questions often posed to those who assert morality without God — "By what authority do you enforce human dignity? Who gives you the right to say that I have to respect the dignity of my fellow humans?" — I reply that dignity is endowed simply by being human and sharing residence of this world, and I don't believe that pointing at tradition and religion endows Chrisitans with any special authority on the issue, when I have no basis for attributing any authority to a particular understanding of God and, most importantly, don't believe such an authority is necessary to give humans humanity.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The audacity of the homosexual lifestyle

Recently, one of my friends posted a link to an an article about a fairly typical Christian response to the growing prevalence of homosexuality in our culture, especially television, which is seen as an assault on good Christian heternormativity. When posted on Facebook, my friends were surprised by it. I was not. In fact, when I heard that there were openly gay characters on Glee that were being portrayed as (of all things) normal, the first thing I thought of was of the condemnation that Christians would undoubtedly heap upon it. This, in long, is, as best as I can tell from years of observation, why:

If you know that the gays are not only openly and boldly sinning (or at least misguided, see: Glee), but doing their best to convince, or even worse subtly suggest (again, see: Glee) to poor children suffering from same-sex attraction that their feelings are not evil, sinful, and unhealthy, as God and you well know (and as God lays out in thousands of verses...oh wait, that's loving your fellow humans and caring for the poor).

These gays, and their evil depraved liberal compatriots are trying to push onto their young, impressionable minds that it's not only okay, but perhaps even something to be celebrated and embraced. They're trying to take this depravity and ickiness and turn it into something...acceptable. And you can't have that, because then these children might go as far as to not believe that they are depraved and sinful, and refuse to go to the psychological manhandling that is ex-gay camp, and turn out to be normal, healthy, well-adjusted homosexuals. And if too many kids end up doing that, instead of being repressed, shamed, and pushed to the margins of society, then what will happen to the examples to point to to prove your point?

What of those who have destroyed families by coming to terms with their repressed sexuality halfway through a false marriage? What of the youth who are having sex without guidelines, because they are already completely outside of their rigid Christian morality anyway? We can't have all these Neil Patrick Harrises prancing around. If everyone ends up appearing normal by all appearances, and even good, even decent faithful Christian God-fearing homosexuals, who will you point to to demonstrate the depravity? How will you preserve the holy heteronormativity?

What examples will you use to paint these individuals as outside of God's ideal with a wide brush, like singles, and women, and blacks? Or not the last one any more...Christianity has figured that one out. Get with the program. And women are mostly okay these days, as long as they don't get to heady about it, and depending on who you ask.

You can't.

And that's the problem.

It may just be that I have spent too much time trying to deny to myself that these viewpoints exist and are widespread, only to be proved wrong, time and time again. But I was not surprised by this. Not in the least. Dismayed? Re-disappointed? Annoyed? Yes. But not surprised.

And I know many people who fall within my wide caricature here, including my own family (hi, Dad!) and friends. And I am well aware that not every Christian who is against homosexuality believes all of this. I know that I am myself painting a wide brush, and being overly general and vindictive. Which is because all of this sounds pretty ridiculous to me and you, but if you insert at the base of it a solid, sincere, God-fearing, honest-to-goodness conviction that homosexuality is evil, not God's intention, a perversion of humanity by the world, and all of this is just the devil, speaking to me, the producers of Glee, directly or indirectly by the liberal establishment, the media, and shows like Glee, most of it makes sense. And I almost understand that, in my rational mind. But the way I put it , it sounds ugly and crazy, because if you don't have that conviction, it is ugly. Ugly, petty, and wrong.

I don't have that conviction.

And I don't think there is anything - not in the Bible, not in rhetoric, not in my family, not in pity or prayer - that will change that.

The wonderful (and heck, the so-so, if there are any) gay people that I know and love, who have struggled with Christianity, struggled with their families, their community, and themsevles, and ultimately concluded that there is nothing broken within them, that it is the world and their religion that is broken, are a testimony. A frighteningly unassailable testimony. And it'll take more than fearmongering and prooftexting to change that.

Many of those (my father) who I think of most when I go off like this are wonderful people. Sincere, God-fearing, loving, beautiful people. And they don't necessarily campaign against homosexuality. My parents, and 67% of my home county, voted against it. And flinch at, and probably comment on, the pervasive homosexuality (and therefore immorality) in television, the media, and the world. The motivation for their beliefs and actions are rooted in a deep love for, conviction from, and belief in God. And to them, the above is biased and inflammatory, but under all the rhetoric, necessary and true. I think. Because you, I, Seattle, liberals, are decieved by this culture, by shows like Glee, by the world, by Satan himself, perhaps. God is looking down on us, shaking his head sadly, because we are being decieved by moral relativism, and we don't even know it.

Much like, to me, the religious right is holding to "tradition" when it needs to be reconsidered. Subscribing to rules when it is justice and people that need to be seen and considered. And being tricked into holding to lines and pillars of tradition, because they are safer and easier than progress. And God is looking down on them, shaking his head sadly, because they are being decieved into excluding and casting out his beloved, and they don't even know it.

That's the world I live in. It's messy, the lines I've painted are anything but firm or entirely fair, and I don't know what to do with it all the time.

So this?

This did not surprise me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

It Passed!

I've been twittering a good bit tonight about the healthcare bill that is on its way to Obama's desk. I haven't talked about such things much here, but providing decent healthcare as a basic right is something that is very much in line with Jesus' calling to care for the sick and needy, I believe. And due to the huge amount of fearmongering and politicking surrounding this bill, I decided to sit down and read the thing. Or at least a summary of the thing over at THOMAS - still no small feat, at over 20,000 words. But I read through it - skimming when it started getting into technicalities here and there. I'm not nearly a lawyer, but from what I understood, here's my overall summary of it:

Unsurprisingly, there was no dictated communist takeover of the country's healthcare system. What was there was the expansion of Medicaid to all the poor - the most important part of the bill for me. I wasn't sure, because it was a relatively short section. But Title II expands coverage to everyone below 133% of the poverty line, mandating it by 2014 and allowing it as soon as April 1 of this year. Previously getting Medicaid required you to be disabled, pregnant, or a child, with a few other qualifications. This bill removes those requirements. The bill also established a lot of basic requirements for health insurance - regulation of the insurance industry and of insurance plans to ensure that everyone (for some definition of everyone) has a given basic level of health coverage, and sets requirements for individuals to purchase coverage. It also, as promised, sets up a healthcare exchange that is kind of a central repository for insurance plans, monitored by the government. These were obviously the meat of the bill - health coverage standards, the individual mandate, and the insurance exchange - so they're in there for sure. There were also several sections that worked towards making information about doctors, healthcare plans, hospital ratings, and the like more available and open to the public. Additionally, there were many things to improve the existing programs, adding checks and requirements, and Title V added lots of funding to encourage students to go through medical school - loan forgiveness, additional loans, money to schools. These are all good things in my mind.

There was also a lot of fluffy language - requirements for things to be planned, "senses of the Senate," advising people to do this and that. I'm assuming this is pretty standard in politics, but it would be better without it.

Obviously, there was a lot more in there than that, but that's the quick version. I also took some notes of a few sections I found interesting or pertinent given everything that's been thrown around, that I've listed below:

  • Abortion, as I read it, is basically up to states, but there is no federal funding for abortion (Sec. 1303)
  • In addition to the expansion of Medicaid, people below 400% of the poverty line get special tax breaks for healthcare coverage (Sec. 1402)
  • The bill forbids discrimination against hospitals that don't participate in assisted suicide (Sec. 1553)
  • Coverage for anti-smoking medications is added to Medicaid (Sec. 2502)
  • There is funding for sex ed, both abstinence and contraception, with a special mention/funding of abstinence education (Sec. 2952 and 2953)
  • An Office of Women's Health is established in several departments (Sec. 3509)
  • If I'm reading it right, a federal mandate similar to the one in King County for restaurants to post calories and other nutritional information on their menus (Sec. 4205)
  • Special assistance for pregnant teens (Sec. 10212)
  • Employees at free clinics are protected under malpractice laws as if they were employees of Public Health Services (Sec. 10608)
For a more informed overview of the healthcare bill, check out PolitiFact's take, The New York Times' summary, or FactCheck's summary of recent arguments. But overall, I'm glad this thing finally passed, despite all the fearmongering, confusion, and deception that did its best to bring it down. Healthcare should be a basic right, all the more if you are concerned with the welfare of the least of these.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Theology of Love

"A theology of love." This post has been cooking for a long time. I've had that title in mind for months now. I've tried to start this post several times - I have drafts from ten months ago, four months ago, and a few in between. And as I look back, I think I've tried to make it too complicated. So here goes.

My theology is this: God is Love.

There's a lot packed in that sentence - firstly, for me to have a theology that I can actually believe in is a big step. It's been a long process. See my prelude for the "quick" version, and the rest of this blog for the long version. And as for the theology, it's more than just three words. But it can be summed up in those three words.

To elaborate a little, I believe that the very essence of God is Love. And I mean essence in the most literal sense possible: containing God's characteristic properties in concentrated form. An extract that has the fundamental properties of a substance in concentrated form. Looking at the various definitions, essence is actually an excellent word. The most important ingredient; the crucial element. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing. The basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing or its significant individual feature or features. All of these definitions get at the relationship between God and Love. Basically, they are one and the same. Now, this isn't anything too radical - I'm pretty sure I'm on fairly solid theological ground so far. But where this begins to differ from a lot of theology is that I believe that Love is everything. I saved one of the definitions to illustrate this: Love is the intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify God. I like that one. How do you characterize or identify God? Love. Take anything, and ask of it - is there Love? If not, I seriously question if it is of God, or represents God faithfully. I intend on taking this to its fullest extent possible - which has some interesting implications that I'll outline below. But I think I still have pretty good support. After all, a great man once said:

"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
-Jesus (John 13:35)

But first, how did this come about? Well, during my deconstruction phase, I was looking at the things that are wrong with the Church (and this country, and society in general) - of which there are many - I kept coming back to what I call the "summing up" passages. There are several places in scripture "sums up" the Bible, the nature of Christianity, into a short space. They are arguably some of the most famous passages in the Bible. The Golden Rule. The Greatest Commandment. For example:

"This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."
-Jesus (John 15:12-13)

"And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?"
And [the lawyer] answered, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.' And He said to him, 'You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.'"
-Jesus and the Lawyer (Luke 10:25-37)

"If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing."
-Paul (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)

"But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love." -Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13)

"The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
-John the Apostle (1 John 4:8)

"God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."
-John the Apostle (1 John 4:16)
Half the beatitudes are about loving your enemies. And so I thought about it, and when it came time to form some kind of positive theology, I realized this was it. Love. But when it comes to forming a whole theology, most people add more to it. And indeed, I'm sure most reactions to my theology thus far are something along the lines of "That's all well and good, but it's simplistic. It sounds nice, but what about sin? What about the hard stuff? You can't just go around just believing in love. It's more complicated than that."

And with that, I tentatively and respectively disagree. And not just flippantly. Because I've thought about this. Because Christians tend to focus on either sin or love, neglecting the other. Neither is correct. God doesn't wander around the universe, looking for things people are doing wrong, punishing them for it, making sure they stay in line. Neither does he traipse around the heavens, throwing out platitudes and packets of happy, telling everyone that it's okay, he loves them anyway, just do better next time. I know this. But after some consideration, I realized that the important concept of sin actually fits right into my theology of love - with a little bit of a perspective shift.

For that, I'll take a little sidetrip. The Law. All good Christians know that God came to fulfill it, not abolish it. But do we really understand what that means? I didn't. The way I used it, and heard it used, it basically meant that Christians could still use the Old Testament to back up their opinions if the New Testament wasn't good enough. But I think I actually get it now. And that, by the way, is not what it means.

When Jesus showed up, the religious leaders of the time had taken the Law of the Old Testament, codified it, and written up hundreds upon hundreds of very specific rules that dictated exactly what you could and could not do, when. From what I've read of the New Testament, Jesus wasn't a huge fan of these Lawkeepers. Many of his strongest words were reserved for the Pharisees and Sadducees (he called them "vipers" and "white-washed tombs" for example). The intention of these groups was to make sure that the Law was followed down to the letter, and no one stepped outside of the lines defined by their interpretation of the Law. Their intentions were noble enough - they wanted people to follow God's Law. But Jesus did not like what they were doing. He didn't like them checking up on everyone, making sure that people were doing it right, punishing the slightest deviation from their rules. Of course this isn't because was an anarchist. The lawkeepers were doing it wrong. They focused on the letter of the law, counting steps on Sabbaths. Jesus deliberately disobeyed their precepts! He healed on the Sabbath just to see what they would do. He had his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus wanted to show people that the letter of the law is not what mattered. What matters is the spirit of the law. God is hardly offended that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath is to relax, take a day off from the ever-increasing distractions of our world, and focus on God. Rigidifying the spirit of the law kills it. Cementing God's will into a set of precepts renders it useless. My point is, the lawkeepers had it so backwards! I believe this is true in a very large, very overarching sense, and have written a whole post on just this. In fact, read that post, you'll get a better idea of where I'm coming from. But to sum up: humans like rules because they're easy, clear cut, don't require thought, and most significantly, are easy to find people breaking. God doesn't like rules, and just wants us to follow his will. Unfortunately, humans aren't very good at that, and he reluctantly set forth precepts to help us figure it out. They're imperfect, which is why he sent Jesus to fix things. To fulfill the law. To quote my other post, God basically said, "These rules are annoying, and not really what I want. I'm going to send Jesus down to fulfill the law so we don't have all these obnoxious rules. The humans will figure it out, and be much happier. They'll see." Unfortunately, we didn't get it, killed Jesus, and resumed telling each other exactly what rules we were breaking.

So that said, I believe that the idea of a simple precept, a single concept, being the core and source of all divine law, is pretty valid. And from what I remember, the simplest, most commonly-agreed upon definition of sin is "going against the nature of God." The nature of God, of course, is Love. If sin is going against Love, what more is sin than an absence of perfect love? And this is a beautifully unifying idea. We wouldn't have to worry about loving too much, or failing to call people on sin. Telling people that their sinning would just be admonishing them to more perfectly love God, others, or themselves. Loving people would, in and of itself, be striving to not sin. This sounds like a cop-out, but in reality, it is extremely, even impossibly, difficult. Rules are way easier. We have to love completely and truly. Oftentimes, this means calling out people when they are being unloving towards our fellow human beings. That's called sin. And that is my theology of sin.

And that is my Theology of Love. Love. Always. Period. Which doesn't just mean being nice. It means putting all the six billion other people in the world before yourself, defending them from injustice, hate, and corruption, and being absolutely loving to those around you - even those that annoy you and hurt you and are wrong. That's hard. But no one said Christianity was easy. In fact, Christ often said it was downright hard.

Before I end, a quick note on salvation. I will take a whole note to explain it more fully, but briefly: the evangelical movement seems to be preoccupied with Romans 10:9-10 and Acts 16:31. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." and "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved". It is where the "saved" language comes from - you "become a Christian" when you are "saved" by saying your salvation prayer. This doesn't really follow from my Theology of Love - it doesn't contradict it, but it's kind if anticlimactic, to say the least. Instead, I focus on two different passages. The end of Matthew 25, and the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In these, Jesus says that those who do "the will of [His] Father" and those who care for "the least of these" will inherit eternal life, and those who do not will be rejected and cast into the eternal fire. That is my standard for salvation - faith is a necessary component, but without love, without caring for others, without doing the will of the Father, it is nothing. It is dead, as James put it. Does a dead faith still get you a golden ticket into heaven? I don't have an answer to that - but it doesn't matter, because I intend to follow Jesus' mandate of love.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tim Timmerman

So this fall, my brother went of to GFU, and I was rather surprised to find out that they, generally considered more conservative than my own SPU, had an openly gay professor: Tim Timmerman, an art prof. I was pretty excited about this, and was even more excited when I found out he was going to speak at chapel about homosexuality. I was a little wary when my brother sent me the link on iTunes U with the comment "Let me know what you think...I'm interested :P" and even more wary when my father (who I don't exactly see eye-to-eye with on this issue) forwarded it to me with the subject "A good message from GFU". So today, I finally found time to sit down and watch it (after a brief run-in with iTunes that I got around with Boris Fritscher's iTunes store alternative). I'll kinda-sorta liveblog it after the fact, as I'm watching it. So, here goes:

He introduces the talk by stating that he understands he is talking about people people know, or are, or are related to, and also notes that he himself has struggled with homosexuality. He also made an interesting comment that he believes that what the church does in the next ten years with this issue is crucial for the direction of the church - something I tend to believe as well. Then he starts out by dividing the church into two caricatures. He clearly denotes them as caricatures, but still, they are so hugely's not a good start. One is highly homophobic, very non-confrontational, telling them to be quiet, holding the Bible up as a shield between them and the gay germs (I'm not kidding, he included "we think you might be contagious"). The other is very sappy, concerned with wronging the gays, saying they're sorry, telling them they're okay, to "go settle down in a gay marriage and do whatever you do there" to but shoving them out the door with a "God bless you" because they don't want to deal with them. He (obviously) condemns both of these approaches as being "from the pit of hell" because they're very passive.

Now, I'm sure there are plenty of churches that are like this. And maybe it's just because I'm in Seattle, where churches mostly simply can't ignore or brush away the issue because we have the second-highest percentage of LGBT individuals in the nation, right behind San Fran. But most of the churches I'm familiar with don't come close to either of these camps. I'll summarize some of my experiences, with generalities, but not caricatures. My home church and my current church up here (both relatively small, conservative congregations) largely ignore the issue, at least publically, as far as I have seen. There might be a reference in a sermon to the sinfulness of homosexuality. I seem to remember my home church noting that it's not the gravest of all sins as well. But mostly, it's just not dealt with, because it doesn't have to be. Gay members are either pretty quiet, taking their struggle outside of the public sphere of the church, or leave altogether. Then there are the churches with more public faces. These, in Seattle at least, can't afford to not deal with the issue, and can't afford to fit into one of Timmerman's caricatures. They generally fall along a spectrum, illustrated by a few examples: some either publically ridicule and/or condemn homosexuality (e.g. Mars Hill), some see homosexuality as a sin but embrace homosexuals as sinners like the rest of us (I believe Seattle Vineyard), some publically admit that it's a difficult issue, and not one that they can settle easily (e.g. Quest), others are open-and-affirming (e.g. St. James', St. Mark's, Wallingford UMC). Nowhere have I seen a church that is described by his caricatures. So, with that said, we'll see what he proposes.

He correctly notes that both of his examples are "totally passive," avoiding involvement, saying "be well, be warm, and be on your way." He accuses the church of exchanging the first passive response for the second. Again, being a resident of Seattle, I want to stand up and offer any of my local churches as a counterexample - for better or for worse - as most of them are anything but passive. Open and affirming churches - the forefront of the pro-homosexual movement within the church - are hardly "blithely blessing" their gay brothers and sisters and being absent in their lives.

It was good to hear that he is more worried about the passive church than about condemning homosexuality. And he clearly noted that no one chooses homosexuality (but with a cheap shot at the absurdity of gays wanting to choose "hairy guys" over "lovely women" - what about the women who choose the disgusting "hairy guys" over the beautiful "lovely women"?). He then terms homosexuality as having "higher same-sex needs" and "deep needs for their own gender" and says that this won't be fulfilled by "having sex with the same gender" - which it won't, of course, any more than "higher opposite-sex needs" will be fulfilled by "having sex with the opposite gender." He then cites that he knows hundreds of gay men who have been in committed gay relationships, and came back to him feeling "less of a man" for it. He then clarifies that he met these men via his involvement with "People Can Change" - from the appearances, a pretty stock, if loving, ex-gay program - this isn't just a random sampling of the gay community.

He then starts talking about the "gay identity" being a lie, and seems to mix up gender identity with sexual identity. Where you are on the scale of "manliness" or masculinity doesn't strictly correspond to where you are on the sexual orientation scale. He also says that "sodomy" historically referred to anything from man-on-man sex to oral or anal, regardless of who was involved - basically anything outside the norm. He gives a bunch of negative examples and statistics to show that the "gay lifestyle" is basically poisonous, that gay relationships fall apart more often than straight ones. I don't have the time or energy at the moment to find the studies that contradict this claim, other than the study I'm immediately familiar with that lesbian couples, at least, are better parents, but I think that comparing gay relationships, which are just now being seen as acceptable in some places, to straight relationships, which are part of the nuclear family woven into our culture, is hardly fair. Opponents will say that that's gay relationships aren't okay, but that's not my point. My point is, regardless of absolute acceptability, relationships, especially marriage, are not an island. It's well-known that without the support of their community, marriages are much more likely to fall apart, and straight relationships have default cultural support, while gay relationships don't. I'm not proposing that that's the whole story, but I do think it's a contributing factor.


Tim has moved onto homosexuality in childhood, in absence of relationships or a "gay lifestyle", blaming homosexuality on childhood problems - certainly not a negligible phenomenon, but I don't think it explains all of homosexuality. He then quoted James 1:26-27 ("pure and undefiled religion"), which caught me off-guard as it's one of my favorite verses, and said that these homosexuals are "orphans," orphaned from their masculine identity. He gives the example of St. Gregory of Nyssa as a strong, non-sexual male friendship that fulfills the "God-given need for someone to walk with us in this life" and gives the example of "wedded friendships" and "covenant brotherhoods" in the early church, where men vowed themselves to each other, which basically from his description sounds like marriage without the sex. I'm not really sure what to do with that - where does it cross from being friendship to being same-sex attraction? When they start having sex? How do we map that to our culture today? I don't terribly understand it, so I'll leave it for now. But it's interesting.

He also called the church out on its focus on marriage, and largely ignoring and even shunning singleness - the classic problem of "singles groups" being matchmaking services. Bravo for that - I've always been kind of confused about that, especially with what Paul had to say about marriage. He closed with some advice, on how to deal with the young men who didn't have good relationships with their fathers.

In summary, it was a decent message - I don't want to strangle Tim like I do most of the times I watch a Mark Driscoll sermon. He didn't further reinforce his caricatures of the church, and just kind of let them lie, which was good. But he seemed to be focused on one specific cause and expression of homosexuality, and a very specific "gay lifestyle" of promiscuity and noncommittal relationships, as if there was a "straight lifestyle" that was universally monogamous. He focused on men needing same-sex relation on a non-sexual, heterosexual level and turning to homosexuality to get that, emphasizing the difference between same-sex needs and sexual desires, the former of which can be fulfilled by friendship. I'm not denying that - that may sometimes be the case - but I don't believe it covers all of homosexuality. Additionally, he didn't mention lesbians at all - maybe that wasn't the point of his talk, maybe he doesn't have experience with them, but they are also very present, and don't fit into the nice box of homosexuality that he made, and seems to assume takes care of the problem. Basically, he may be write for some gay men, but I don't think simply putting all homosexuals (gays and lesbians) in his box will work.

If you want to watch Timmerman's talk, you can grab it via iTunes, or via Boris Fritscher's iTunes browser like I did, if you don't have iTunes, and don't want to download all of its 90MB heft.