If I Were to Do Theology Again…


This is my model of how people arrive at faith, if they ever do. It is also a reworking of an e-mail I sent my dad. If I were to do theology again, these would be some initial thoughts.


Gordon Kaufman grounds his An Essay on Theological Method not in the Bible, a tradition, or human experience, but in language. While I had thought experience may have been a good place to start in the past, he reminds his readers that there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience: experience involves meditation, reflection, ratiocination, speaking, writing, and reading, all of which presuppose linguistic competence in some human language.


Children are not born religious or really anything in the sense of experience. These they accumulate through time. Human personhood, or subjectivity, includes all that goes into making a person: habits, decisions, mistakes, parents, thoughts, relationships, abuse/acceptance, bodies, societies, communities, wars, money, education, livelihood, religion, friendships, ethnicity, race, conflict, politics, hobbies, etc. Some of these elements are far more important than others in self-formation; selves are an amalgam of things that become more or less stable over time, though there is the possibility of change, like trauma, new experiences, etc.


Regarding “texts,” I take these to mean all linguistic artifacts, from speech to writing. One brings a lot of one’s subjectivity to the texts that one reads, not just parts. Based on various experiences one can reject or accept things in texts rather quickly. At other times there are texts that give one pause, particularly if they are eloquent, beautiful, jarring, peculiar, or any combination of these things. If I read a headline, I bring a bent, previous thinking, as well as openness to that text. More often than not headlines go out of my mind by the next day because of the nature of that genre of text. Texts such as the Bible, which contain rich layers of genre and human interest, I generally give more time to ruminate.


Texts, however, do not sit by themselves. I can drop a book on a table and say, “Speak,” and, barring some miracle, it will sit silently on the table (this example is worked from Dale Martin in Sex and the Single Savior). Interpretation organically springs from subjectivity as described above. Depending on what community one does or doesn’t belong to, one can come to a wide variety of interpretations of a particular text. Dale Martin has demonstrated that those committed to the historical-critical (e.g., lexicology, syntax, literary forms, genre, discourse, text-criticism, redaction) method of the Bible can come to diametrically opposed interpretations. One can also adopt more avant-garde methods like feminist, queer, post-colonial, ideological/Marxist, reader-response, deconstruction, economic, and African-American and come up with helpful and insightful interpretations not on display in more traditional approaches. These approaches question the proposition that there is one inherent meaning per text.


The final part in the model is faith. This section assumes arriving at a kind of faith; some people never want this. Some people have faith, and then leave it. Others don’t start with it, but find it later in life. I have written elsewhere (here, here, here, and here) of my slavish dependence on Bruce Lincoln in defining religion (I really need to work this out more). He regards the phenomenon as discourse, practice, community, institution and these all reinforcing each other. If one takes this in Christianity, discourse can be Bible/tradition, practice ethics, community congregation, and institution Church structures.

My model, though I introduced it as linear, becomes circular, dialectical. Each of these structuring structures (Bourdieu) end up reinforcing, sometimes breaking, each other.

Me and My Past Faith

For me, I no longer have a particular faith. I was raised in a Pentecostal, evangelical tradition. Some of biblical themes have been with me since I was a boy: humans are special and deserve dignity (e.g., imago Dei), people are built for community and owe to their communities (e.g., brother’s keeper, not good for “man” to be alone), redemption. Some ideas have moved me beyond reconciliation with evangelicalism: patriarchy as divinely ordained, death penalties for trivial things (blasphemy, sorcery, men having sex with men [note the lack of the same standard against women!], proclivity to war, authoritarianism, embeddedness in empire, the concept of messianism, the injustice of substitutionary atonement theory, racism/ethnocentrism, slavery, and choosing ambiguities of faith over certainties of reason.

Me and Interpretation

Probably where I fit in interpretation is synthetic. I think we have to make use of the building blocks of history, language, and syntax, but texts don’t just sit there as “fully interpreted” if we stop at “this verb means this in such and such tense when followed by the definite article in Hebrew and when used by the leader of a family household.” If that’s what a text meant for such a person, what, if anything, has that to do with me? That question involves what I call the Gap. There is a vast chasm between ancient literature and myself, of time, language, and culture. I can fill in some of that, but inevitably I fill in with tools from my training, my community, and my life experience. This is why there’s no such thing as a Bible commentary without an author and publisher. There simply is no such thing as a biblical interpretation without human subjectivity involved. At all.

Some are uncomfortable with human subjectivity being involved so much in faith. When I came to this realization, it was preposterously disconcerting, especially since I was raised with the idea that the Bible is the only authoritative rule for faith and practice. I had to come to grips that I am responsible for what I believe and practice, and couldn’t put it on some outside force to do my thinking or doing for me.

Tons of traditions agree on the idea of biblical truth, but then claim that they have the right interpretation in the bag, regardless of how much diversity of opinion there ends up being. Charles Hedrick wrote once that if God really wanted to clear things up (assuming the Bible contains some kind of God speech), God could speak for godself. It would settle disputes, there would be winners and losers, loyalists and rebels. I would add that because language is ambiguous, God would have to clear things up quite often.

As we have it, we have a lot of people grasping at straws about the unseen and then holding people accountable based on that unseen thing that some apparently have access to, but which I don’t. I can’t corroborate it unless I bathe myself in their communal discourse. I get along quite well with people even if they accept that God speaks from beyond a metaphysical barrier. It gets sticky when it gets political, though, for then the private, innocuous belief becomes a concrete political option that makes or breaks other communities in a pluralistic society.

Link Wednesday 5: SCOTUS Ruled; Now What?

It’s amazing what a few days away from the office can do to clear your mind. I just got back from Wisconsin this Sunday after visiting family. Wow did a lot happen since I wrote last. SCOTUS delivered their big decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. There was much despair. And there was much rejoicing.

In Evangelicalism, conversations moved to what needs to happen in its community regarding the decision. Amidst this background, I came across two very interesting sets of questions from very different points of view. They arise from the same tradition and use the same text.

Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition issued “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags.” Here are some of the questions he asked:

  • “3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?”
  • “7. When Jesus spoke against porneia* what sins do you think he was forbidding?”
  • “11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?”
  • “12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?”

Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines, founder of The Reformation Project, issued a rejoinder, similarly titled: “40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality.” He asked such questions as:

  • “3. How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?”
  • “12. Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?”
  • “17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?”
  • “18. Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?”

Each set of questions demarcates communities. I won’t comment on the virtues and vices of either. I assume my readers are educated. I will reiterate something, though: one faith, one text, very different questions.

Amanullah De SondyAfter I read these, I was listening to a podcast with Amanullah De Sondy. He was discussing his book, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, on the New Books Network. There he made some keen observations about religious communities.

One of these has to do with the appropriation of texts. He asked what a text looked like outside the perspective of hegemony. In other words, if you are not part of a dominant class—whatever social marker that is—how does that affect how you envision a text or sayings? Both DeYoung and Vines are speaking from a place that may or may not be wrong. Which is in a more privileged position? Does privilege vary from situation to situation? If texts had as stable of meanings as we might like them to, there probably wouldn’t be as many interpretive traditions (=denominations, sects, religions) as we have today.

De Sondy’s comments had me thinking how much theology and legal reasoning try to make sense of native ambiguity in texts: ambiguity they recognize and wish to elide or naturalize into a preferred reading for their community. This ambiguity, however, is what I find so inviting and exciting about religious studies.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass
To illustrate interpretation outside hegemony, my friend and classmate, Samantha Nichols, wrote a post about the 4th of July. She included a speech by Frederick Douglass (delivered in 1852, before the Civil War) on the discourse surrounding the holiday:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

What I am highlighting is that you cannot escape your life circumstance and how that colors your interaction with texts (among other things). Sometimes my circumstances prompt me to ask certain questions that people with other social markers ignore, and vice versa. Part of your life circumstances is the groups to which you belong and the groups you reject (for more on this, see my post on community).

I ask this to my reader: how do you arbitrate between two people who understand themselves as faithful to the same tradition, but have different life circumstances informing their interaction with the tradition? I conjecture that it’s probably whatever person’s views most closely align with your own. These debates, while ostensibly about who is most faithful to an original text, at least lend themselves to drawing battle lines: these sets of questions allow persons and communities to identify and align themselves with these two men to achieve certain aims.

*porneia is a Greek word. While this could simply be regarded as a rhetorical move to dismiss the opinions of people who do not know the language in which the New Testament was written, the fact that the New Testament was written in a language other than English seems to invite attention to what is happening in the original language. However, you could also just as easily say that the vast majority of people do not live out their religion by any reference to exegetical and theological tools like Greek—I think it worthwhile to mention that you would need to decide how much that religion is defined by official/institutional means and how much of it is defined on the ground by living, breathing believers.

My Weird Thoughts on “Religion”

Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”

1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms

Religion has classically been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
  • Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
  • A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
  • A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
  • A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
  • An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
  • An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
  • A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)

Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.

Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?

You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.

2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell McCutcheon
Source: Twitter

But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):

A. “Discourse”

By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”

In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.

Source: michel-foucault.com
Source: michel-foucault.com

Source: demotix.com
Source: demotix.com

While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”

So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).

A word on “myth”

Roland Barthes Source: magnumphotos.com
Roland Barthes
Source: magnumphotos.com

Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:

Fable Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Legend Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
History Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Myth Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority

Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.

When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:

When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result

Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.

That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.

I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.

What I Learned This Year

Here are some things I’ve learned this year in school:

  • I am capable of a lot of work when I put my mind to it, but I also recognize my finitude. I have sometimes taken on too much to the detriment of my family. This will require that I plan my time better in adopting a consistent sleep schedule and study plan. My family deserves better than I gave them this year.
  • I had an inkling of this, but it got fleshed more out in my research of Gordon Kaufman’s theological method: all theology is constructed, from beginning to end. It does not exist “out there” to be discovered and exegeted but emerges out of a thinker’s use of sources. This means that one is responsible for what one says; one cannot just blame something on God.
  • Because of what I discovered with Kaufman, I am giving Christianity not another try, but a different try. I will be actively engaged in the process, not just uncritically accepting certain things. In a sense, Christianity exists “outside” the person because it is a social phenomenon. However, Christianity does not exist above and beyond the individual, because it is always embodied and expressed by individual persons. It shows up socially, too, social or political movements. I’m still working out what this even means.
  • I’ve come to realize more and more that I cannot universalize my personal experience and call myself a responsible person. I don’t call what I do “common sense,” “the way things are,” etc. I own what I do, say, and believe to the point that I recognize I have to demonstrate to others how I’ve come to some of my conclusions. I can’t take for granted that people share certain elements of experience with me to come to the same conclusions. And so this gives me room to hear other people’s stories and how they’ve constructed meaning on their journeys and not dismiss them out of hand; those are their experiences, as important to them as mine are to me. True dialogue can occur after each person recognizes this in the other, once we accept that we are not the same, and then attempt to find shared spaces or possibly create them.
  • There’s a world full of religions (one could just as easily say cultures since “religion” and “culture” intersect so seamlessly sometimes) that have worked for peoples to organize their societies. It’s interesting to learn how diverse understandings of religion arbitrate the relationship between church and state, individual and group, secular and sacred, what actually constitutes “religion,” male and female, or beyond binaries in more recent thought.
  • The word “religion” means something obvious to everyone else besides religious studies scholars. Ninian Smart outlined seven elements that most religions of the world have at least some of: doctrine, ethics, narratives/myths, ritual, experience, material culture, and institutions (here is a picture showing the interrelations of six of those dimensions, minus material culture). Some religions will denigrate others for not emphasizing what they emphasize. Some emphasize ritual and minimize ethics and doctrine, while others do the complete opposite. Both wonder at each other as a foreign, exotic “Other,” which is nonetheless wrong. Religion can also be defined in other ways: functionally, essentially, descriptively, and normatively.
  • There are lots of smart people in the world. I no longer feel the impulse to be the smartest in the class or see myself in competition with others to do better. I’ve adopted a more cooperative attitude that feels better. When I treat my classmates as fellow scholars or collaborators rather than as competition, we all benefit. I don’t glean nearly as much as when I share with others and they with me in a dynamic relationship. I just do my best and hope for the best.
  • Facebook and other internet activities waste a lot of my time. So does Netflix. Not to say these aren’t wonderful things in limited quantities, but they kind of contribute to me being a more passive than active person, making my brain feel kind of mushy after indulging for too long.
  • After reading an article by Richard Godbeer (his writing is as cool as his last name sounds), I encountered the idea that discourses of sex are always present in every sex act. One never “just has sex”; one is playing a script, like it fulfills a biological need or emotional desire, acts as a means to bond with a lover, a duty to fulfill, a peak experience with another involved, etc. He was drawing his ideas from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality in three volumes, some of which I’d like to read this summer. The class I was in, Sexuality and American Religion, has actually given me some ideas of possible minors I’d like to pursue alongside the major of religious studies, like gender or sexuality studies and their presence in religions.

That is all I can think of for now. If I think of other things, I’ll edit this post and add them. Ask questions or comment if you want.

So How about That Fall (not the season)?

I’ve been thinking about the Christian doctrine of “The Fall” off and on again since my post on the problem of evil. As I grew up, Jack Chick (remember those comic book style evangelistic tracts?) had a pretty big influence on my 10 year old budding theology. According to him, and many others, evil entered the world after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Through that act, the universally human propensity to sin, humanity’s total depravity from birth, the corruption of creation, the relational strife between all people, etc. came into being. I’d like to hone in on the corruption of creation. Maybe another question might help clear up this corruption nuance: why is “Mother” nature such a raging bitch?

For the sake of discussion, I’m laying out how I see my former Evangelicalism portraying the corruption of creation, and then list some questions I have for it. We are told in the Genesis account that there was no death before Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience. We are told that God saw his creation as good. Humankind, the apex of God’s creation and the last entity created, was called “very good.” Supposedly (this is never explicitly stated, but a pretty safe assumption based on what’s said in Genesis), every creature was vegetarian, because there was no death.

Now, once disobedience entered the world, evil did, too. Death and decay entered in the wake of perfection. The favorite verse of misogynists states that there would be pain for women in childbearing. Man was cursed to work the ground by the sweat of his brow (some have attempted to work out a theology of work pre-fall. You can look it up. I have no desire to spell that out here, and I find it terribly unconvincing). There would be gender wars, wars between family members, clothing had to be made by butchering animals (hehe, or fig leaves if you prefer). Now the following is never stated in the Genesis or other accounts, but I have heard it promulgated in enough places to consider it an Evangelical/Christian belief: all natural evil stems from the Fall. By natural evil, I mean natural disasters, sickness/disease, survival of the fittest among animals, and other unnecessary pain that is part of nature.

Here’s a bit of a detour. What is evil? I have heard it said by Augustine that evil is the privation of good. That probably applies most easily to moral evils. Theft would be the privation of the good of ownership. Murder would be the privation of the good of life. Dishonesty would be the privation of honesty. Allegedly, that makes evil a nonentity so that God is absolved from creating evil, given that he is the creator of all that exists. But what does that definition do to the very real entity of natural evil, like boiling hot magma enveloping the city of Pompeii? Let’s say God isn’t involved in every natural disaster that happened, but just lets it happen because that’s just the way things are after the Fall; does that indicate that he deprived his earlier creation of its intrinsic goodness? Or to put it another way, did tornados/earthquakes/volcanoes/floods/hurricanes/famines exist before or after the Fall? Did the very good creation contain those natural disasters intrinsically? Did God create these phenomena afterward to teach humanity a lesson, so that there were actually two creations, one very good and the other also very good, but good at being bad?

Some, like John Hick (soul-making theodicy [defense of God’s justice in the face of evil] here), have brought up the fact that gravity most certainly existed before the Fall. And if cliffs just happened to exist, and there was hard ground 200 feet below them, a tumble might take its toll on one’s self-actualization. The potentiality of toe-stubbing also probably existed pre-Fall, too (I don’t recall if these are his exact examples, but if not, booyah). But again, such instances have to do with someone’s clumsiness or obliviousness. Let’s say Adam and Eve built a shanty on the edge of the Nile. Would it be destroyed by the yearly flood cycles, or would floods simply not have existed yet in a perfect world?

What I’m aiming at is did God create natural evil (I guess before or after doesn’t really matter), or does the notion of natural “evil” tend to speak against the existence of God as we understand him—all powerful, knowledgeable, and benevolent? To put it ambiguously clearly, should we change “God” to “god”? Or a third option, does he put it there to test people? Or does he have some unstated purpose in this, and we just have to float through life making up meaning as we go? Or is he not all that benevolent? When I had a kid, I wanted to make the world the best I can for him. That world I speak of is limited to my sphere of influence, in that I can only do so much toward it, by providing an income, sagely advice (hehe, we’ll see how sagely I am when I have to deal with his probably hellion ways), loving acceptance, direction, and just being there. Enter my broken record: where’s the all powerful, wise, and good God in this world that extends beyond the one I control? Do I need to redefine things as they pertain to God? For that matter, is God even extra-linguistic, have an existence outside language games?

I discussed the existence of tornados with one of my friends, and asked him if they came from creation or after the fall. He said they aren’t really considered evil until human beings start getting (enter my putting words in his mouth) impaled by foreign objects. I’ll grant that. Let’s say all natural disasters existed before the Fall, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, blizzards, tsunamis, what have you. Adam and Eve simply didn’t care because none of those (save maybe floods) would have touched their existence in the Ancient Near East. But what about the carnivorousness that seems intrinsic to lions, and the herbivoreness that seems intrinsic to gazelles; why were the poor latter created with nerve endings? It honestly serves no purpose than to give them horrendous feeling while they’re being eviscerated by the former. Did pain receptors only magically appear after said Fall? What about cognitive bias? What about the ability to drown? Were lions intrinsically motivated not to eat our only human parents alive at the time? In fact, if carnivorousness existed from creation, and God created all the species that exist now (which isn’t the case), how many species died per day after creation? Shouldn’t there have been a pretty quick mass extinction through food shortage? And why the hell were mosquitoes created? There’s no way they weren’t annoying everything in existence before the Fall. If God exists, at best he has a sense of humor at others’ expense. I’ll admit, it’s pretty funny to witness someone swatting at “nothing” as they walk through cobwebs and attempt to fling good Charlotte from her body, but why do such insidious beasts exist at all in a very good creation? Maybe evolution is a result of the fall, and that’s where all the annoying and terrible creatures came from!

There are a few possible answers to all of these questions. One of the possibilities would be adjusting our definitions of the Western concept of God from being all good, powerful, and wise, to not being all or some of those to the nth degree. Process theism has done this to some degree. Another option is that he exists, but chooses to hide very convincingly. Another option is that our senses and everything derived from them (i.e., science) are misleading. Another possibility could be admitting ignorance/agnosticism, and not engage in conjecture about things which are unseen from those that are. Perhaps God will, as Robert M. Price has stated it (I forgot if it was here or here), put on a seminar on the other side about how and why things really are, particularly for those curious jokerpantses like me.

As always, if you got something to say drop a line in the comments section or my email at ilostmyprayerhanky AT mail to the g DOT com. I like conversing. I don’t gots all the answers. You probably don’t either. If you do, I’ll save you some time: you’re a moron and there is no point in us shouting each other down, or each of us bending over to have a pooping contest to see who gets stained first. However, in dialogue, we get more than we had before. It’s like steak and beans, but better.

What’s Faith For?

In conversations with some close family and a close friend, I have heard mentioned the necessity and importance of faith in approaching god. When I have proposed that god is utterly absent from my experience, and then stated that it’s rather hard to base my life off of something or live in submission to someone for which there is not more than dubious evidence (in my experience and studies), they assert that faith is required. Why is it required? What makes god special in this instance that faith is required and not direct relationship?

When my car is broken, I don’t take it to someone who doesn’t for sure know how to work on cars, or has faith to fix it but no credentials; I take it to ASE certified mechanics. When I make a decision to attend a school, I consult counsel: career counselors, professors, friends, students. I do have inner monologue, but I attribute that to self-talk, not prayer/consultation with some entity who at best communicates to me through my own thoughts. Faith just seems an utterly weak position when there are more concrete options to consider. In every decision I come to, no, I do not make it with bird’s eye objectivity. But neither does the person who consults his or her god. They are just as embedded in their context as I am. I fail to understand how the element of faith adds to or diminishes vitality, wisdom, or direction in my life. Yes there are times where I make decisions without all the evidence at my disposal. Who doesn’t? I don’t call that faith. I call that life. We walk about in the dark, because that’s what life is. We don’t have all the information at hand. We don’t always make the best choices. We are human beings. If god spoke through much less convoluted means, I would grant faith more credence. However, as the word is presented to me, it is used as something differentiated from the faculties of reason and experience, a move I feel very uncomfortable with.

Here’s something of my experience with faith. There was a used van for sale. I asked the seller what was wrong with it besides the mileage. He said there was nothing wrong with the vehicle except its mileage. So I trusted him on that, not knowing the man, and foolishly, not taking it for a test drive. I trusted this man whom I did not know. What I got was a faulty electrical system, a right-at-the-end-of-its-life transmission, a near dead battery. That’s what I got for faith.

I’ve learned my lesson. A wiser person would have asked more questions than I did, ran it for a test drive, and taken it to a mechanic to check it out because we don’t take peoples’ word for things. We have to confirm things. We don’t accept colleges’ and universities’ claims to being reliable institutions; we run them through the gauntlet of accreditation. Continually. Where’s god’s accreditation process? Where’s his test drive? Why do people accept what the bible says with sometimes the level of trust that I had in the sleezy van salesman? Why does that seem to be the only area where we don’t bring our intellectual muscle to bear?

Another, more personal example. Growing up in a time and place where the distance between puberty and marriage continues to widen, I shared the experience of many Christian men in trying to maintain sexual purity in the modern age. The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead was available to me to give life to my mortal body. In Christ’s absence, he left his Spirit to guide me into all truth and righteousness. So when there was temptation to look at pornography or do anything else, God would not let me be tempted beyond what I could bear. Sometimes I would/could resist. The temptation’d be there, but I’d be abstinent for months. Other times no. I guess I thought the power of god would show up more powerfully than it did, calming the raging sea of my hormones. I expected the grandeur of what is present in the biblical account. Where was this power? Was there more to this thing than words on a page?

I think the way in which the word “faith” is used today is far different than how it was used in the bible. Faith was used in places like Hebrews 11 as “trust” based on the past acts of god in history. The Israelites had their Exodus. The earliest Christians had Jesus’ direct life to appeal to. What happens, though, when I’m a Westerner, gentile, around 1900 years removed from the latest supposed revelation, and have no experience of this god whatsoever? Do I trust the murky historical and literary evidence at hand, ignoring or playing gymnastics with all the critical issues that exist? Do I downplay my own reason and experience in light of Christian tradition? I don’t see how that makes sense. I hold out hope for some reason, that if god exists, god will reveal something to me that would excite me to exhibit trust. Otherwise, the god of the bible is just another salesman with a used van, a degree mill with no accreditation.

Though some of my writing may come off as if I am static in my position or unwilling to change, it’s just a place I’m in at the moment. I desire fellowship and counsel in this lonely place. What has the God of the Bible done in your life that prompts you to trust him? What feeds your daily faith in him? If you have dealt with the critical difficulties surrounding using the Bible as a source of faith and theology, what are some ways you have done so? I’m at a place where I don’t trust Jesus, the Bible, or the God handed down. I’d like to, but I don’t. If you have help to offer, I’m all ears. Mind you, I will ask a lot of questions, but not because I’m combative. It’s just, after certain experiences, I can “never see with virgin eyes again” (Missy Higgins lyric; and, no, I’m not calling people who haven’t had my experiences “virgins”; never mind what I mean because now I don’t know what I mean lol).

What is this thing we call theology?

The question of god is one of the most important questions one can answer. But how do I communicate that importance to many who can go on living as though the question has absolutely no bearing on life whether one answers it or not? Does the fact that one can possibly lead a completely full life without any input from god or theology indicate the irrelevance and unimportance of those two to (especially theology) to the vast majority of humanity? Can one say that there is more to the importance and relevance of those two subjects than what interests certain personality types?

I’m fascinated by theology and philosophy. I love things that make absolutely no money, but are enjoyable in and of themselves as intellectual titillation. I find that these things that “don’t produce anything” in fact produce culture. When some speak of the flowerings of culture, they sometimes refer to the artifacts that have “productive value” like inventions, but they also mean those priceless art pieces such as Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, da Vinci’s paintings, Michelangelo’s murals, the political thought of Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, and the theology, I contend, of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and others. These pieces speak to many of the heights of human reason, design and creativity, the possibilities of what can be, possible futures to experiment with, individuality risen above the norm to be fostered and kept by future generations.

Theology is but a mix of philosophy, literature, and poetry devoted to a god. But when I do theology in this day and age, and in my cultural understanding, what am I even doing? What is that to which I devote theology? What is it when I speak of god? I was taught to do theology similar to what Roger Olson wrote about in a three part series on what theology entails and who does it here, here, and here. Essentially, the posts speak to constructing theology almost primarily (in some cases solely?) from Scripture, in dialogue with historical theological tradition, reason, and experience. What happens when one starts with reason and experience rather than revelation and its subsidiary tradition?

Theology runs on assumptions. Most theology has run on the assumption that god exists and that the deity has revealed godself in the bible. If the assumption runs that we’re not sure he exists and we know nothing of a sure revelation, what kind of theology may be constructed? There is a death of god theology that sounds very intriguing to me by its very title (I actually have no knowledge of what it entails), but how does it serve as a theology, a discourse on god? Might theology have to take on a new definition than discourse on god? Maybe discourse on man and his plight? This prospect excites me for it might be new and bring up more for discussion in the history of theology. A modern humanity, groping about in the dark, and yet boldly going where no one has gone before.

Worship and extreme doubt

Source: Life Tabernacle Church
Source: Life Tabernacle Church
My mom got me a worship CD a few weeks ago. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it. For one, I have trouble with worship because of all my unanswered questions, with next to no answers. I’m actually sitting here wondering if I have any answers. But the worship CD. When I’m by myself, I entertain all the dark, lonely questions of the universe and am just that—alone. However, when I sing along with this worship CD, I’m serene. I feel secure. I’m thoughtful. I stand on centuries of tradition. I experience what many experience in their cars and in their churches every time they gather. I almost enter a place of “Do my questions even matter?” It’s almost like the bliss state from the recent, horribly cut-short show “V.” But then I get out of my car. Back to my questions. Back to my doubts. Back to cursed responsibilities (my wife and I get in fights about this all the time lol). Back to…reality? Are the feelings I experience while singing or listening to that worship CD merely a response to music, an altered state of reality? The guy on the album does have a smooth, hypnotic voice. If I read the bare lyrics, I know the same experience wouldn’t be there, but is that a bad thing? Can the tension just exist there, and I just let it lie (unresolved questions and what feels like very resolved feelings)? Probably not. I like coherence. I like for things to make sense. Granted, I like my horizons to expand to where formerly disparate things can coexist with the right understanding of them, but I am not in that place for my theological/hermeneutical questions and worship.

And just what are some of my problems/questions? Here are a few, and most of them come through a Christian lens, but with philosophical and theological flavor:

  • Revelation– Multiple religious traditions claim god or the gods have revealed themselves through a particular tradition. If that is the case, which one is right? They can’t all be right, right? Or can there be elements of truth in all of them, but not the whole in any? What criteria are there for teasing out revelation? Is it a book? Is it particular persons? Is it an impulse or feeling? Is it nature or reason? Is it a synthesis of many things? If there is revelation in the Bible, but the Bible isn’t inerrant, how does one determine what is or isn’t revelation without recourse to some mysterious spirit? If there were revelation, what does one do with it?
  • Religious experience and God– how does one know that the god of experience is the God of the Bible? Is the god of philosophical argument the God of the Bible? Is the god of religious experience a god at all, or merely physical responses to one’s environment or mental state?
  • Theology and culture– how much of Christianity is transferable to a Western context from a first century Palestinian context? Is it merely a product of its time, therefore, something to move past in foreign (gentile) contexts? Is Christianity of yore merely Judaism with Jesus as the messiah? What does that have to do with the plethora of Christianities today? Is the term “Christian” even useful in describing anything, given the amount of qualifiers the many Christian groups use to distinguish themselves?
  • The (in)justice of God– this list could go on for awhile. I won’t speak for other religions’ gods though I’m sure there’s enough injustice to go around. Christianity’s god seems rather doucheish. Rather than answer Job’s questions that emerged out of his pain, he responds with an elitist monologue (Job 38-40); I mean, imagine a being superior to the Jewish god telling him to shut up with his questions after his son died on the cross)
    Source: Wikipedia
    Source: Wikipedia
    ; David had to pick a punishment on his people for his own sin (which his god made him do…), because his god said so (2 Sam 24.1-17); the unstable lord of the flood incident (Gen 6.5-8) definitely doesn’t sound like a gal who wishes all to come to repentance (2 Pet 2.9); hell as eternal punishment for a finite number of sins (see many verses here); holding people without the law accountable for some somehow “obvious” but actually oblique natural theology (Rom 1.18-20, 1 Tim 1.9); sexual immorality being the only occasion allowable for divorce by Jesus when domestic abuse and emotional scarring sure seem like good ones to me (Mat 19.9, Mk 10.11); if we take the Calvinist sounding verses at face value god creates some vessels for destruction with no chance of redemption because of his immutably capricious will (e.g., Rom 9.22); forcing a rape victim to marry her rapist (Deut 22.28-29), wrecking people’s lives
    Source: Getty Images
    Moore, OK Source: Getty Images
    (Isa 45.7, Lam 3.37-38, Amo 3.6; attention brought to these vv here), etc. I’m not being original here, I don’t think. I’m sure some of the bloggers I follow here, here, here, and here could list many more. And many Christians have probably had trouble with many of these things like I have, but like I have in my past, simply stuffed them back under a bushel to run back to the fluffy god who loves. Or maybe some have come up with legitimate answers to these questions I simply haven’t heard yet. I’m all ears in the comments section or in email (ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com).
  • Occam’s Razor– I started applying this pretty wildly a few years back. When I’m sick, I used to pray and take pills. Now I just take pills. When I was having trouble in my marriage, I could say myself, sin, and Satan were brewing the perfect storm; I would pray and talk with others on how to solve my problems. Then I just focused on my own problems I brought into marriage, without any reference to sin or Satan, and the problems evaporated. Yes there are still arguments, but they’re constructive and healthy. God and anything metaphysical just seem so irrelevant to my life, because when I concentrated on the concrete, results occurred that were controllable, predictable, and concrete.
  • Historicity of Bible and Jesus– suffice it to say, I have trouble with their historicity. I’ll provide examples if desired.
  • God’s absence– I wrote about this earlier, but I’ll mention it again. Things would be a lot clearer if god did his own speaking, rather than letting everyone else have mere opinions on what they think she means. Instead of liberal and conservative views, theist and atheist views, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or Baha’I views, cataphatic or apophatic views, we would actually have god’s view on abortion, capitalism, Marxism, politics, essentialism, and anything we wished to ask him if she had the time. But instead the teacher leaves the kids to run unattended on the playground with complete freedom to annihilate themselves or grow morally.
  • I share many of the questions listed in the comments section of one of the Evangelical blogs I follow here.

So I sing along with a worship CD and enjoy myself. Should I take that away? Is it a healthy reprieve from my questions? Or a temporary lapse in judgment? Are the good feelings associated with worship music something to maintain or to disrobe? For my own happiness, contentment, and comfort I’d rather keep the good feelings. But in this case, is my happiness, contentment, and comfort the right thing? Is the right thing, rather, going through the grief process of an old system, and then moving on with life? I invite your responses, friends, foes, and strangers alike. One thing I do believe is that I don’t have all the answers and that many people’s experiences can enrich my own if I give them a platform.