Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lesson from Sem 4: Professors under pressure

While I wasn't as enthralled with the students as I hoped, I enjoyed almost every one of my professors. Some where touchy-feely, some were analytical, some were funny, and some were as serious as a heart attack. Although some were not very good teachers, they were all well trained and really seemed to know their stuff when pressed, with more than one being what I call 'stone-cold brilliant' - a designation I don't use lightly.

As I went through my classes, I found myself consistently wondering why I had never heard the gospel presented in the ways it was in Seminary. One professor (one of my favorites) walked in on the first day of class and said, "I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that the god you were taught about as you grew up doesn't exist. He's a myth. The good news is that the God of the Bible does exist."

He was right. As I went through seminary, learned about the formation of the biblical canon, learned about textual criticism, learned about church history, and psychology, and hermeneutics, and theology through the ages, it was like scales were falling from my eyes. The journey can't really be described, but it was life-shifting. For me, this shift was in a good direction, for some others, the shift knocked them off their moorings.

The question I kept asking myself, again and again, is why this altered understanding of the Christian faith and of God doesn't filter down to congregations. The answer has to do with what that professor told us on the first day of class.

People don't like it when the god of their childhood is in danger of being altered. People don't like it when they find the very faith that they have clung to - the foundation of their thinking - is actually balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff. People don't like it when they have to realize that our scientific understanding of the world actually should change the ways in which we think about God, reality, and the Bible. People get scared when they are taught about the real nature of truth, or about the real history of the Christian scriptures.

Here's an example - one of the best New Testament textual critics in the world, Michael Holmes, works at Bethel University. (Textual criticism refers to reconstructing the original scripture, which no longer exists, from the many variant scripture documents that still exist.) He was a guest lecturer in one of my Greek classes, and walked us through several text critical issues in rapid fire succession. For someone like me, who saw the Bible as a bulletproof document with no problems whatsoever, these examples were devastating. I felt my world starting to shift. Others in the class must have felt the same way because at least a few, men and women alike, walked out during the middle of class, sobbing. Perhaps theirs wasn't a shift as much as a collapse.

Now, Dr. Holmes is a very strong Christian, very loving and kind, and very good at his job. This scenario is not entirely his fault. But the reality is that Biblical inerrancy like I was taught in church is problematic. The type and extent of these problems aren't well understood (if at all) by most laypeople, yet these issues cannot be historically disputed by any reasonable individual. Can you imagine the response of a congregation to teaching that drives seminary students from class with tears streaming down their face? Would their response be fear and trembling and renewed interest in the God they are so convicted is real, or would they respond in fear and anger towards the messenger out of a wish to preserve their beliefs? What does that then say about their beliefs?

Just imagine the turmoil that would occur if a professor decided to speculate on something that was disputable. What about the implications of the theory of relativity for the second coming of Jesus Christ? What about the implications of quantum mechanics on our understanding of truth and knowledge? What about testing the Biblical claims for prayer and right living against the claims of other belief systems?

Seminary professors are accused of living in Ivory Towers, but as I see it our Christian congregations have put them there. Greg Boyd (who is controversial in his own right) was run off from his professorship because he dared to proposed a theory that, at least to him, made more sense out of scriptures than other widely known theories. I don't agree with Dr. Boyd on spritual warfare theodicy or open theism, but it does take seriously some passages of scripture that often aren't taken seriously enough. Another professor (who has requested to remain nameless) was fired from his professorship for writing a paper speculating that "abstacta" may be co-eternal with God. Essentially, what this means is that abstract concepts, like mathematical truths and logic are not "things" that need to be created, and therefore *could* be co-eternal with God. Again, I don't agree with this view, but it does take seriously the nature of certain truths. This paper had been published for over a year when he finally explained to one of his classes what the paper was really about. A student took issue with the concepts in the paper, and had the professor sacked for "not maintaining orthodoxy".

Incidences like these are not uncommon. So, instead of professors making their work accessible to all, in the hopes that their work might be an aid to the very church-goers who fund them, professors make their work as inaccessible as possible; they enter the ivory tower. They adopt jargon that takes much effort to decode. They use ambiguous language that makes the unsophisticated reader unaware of what they are really saying. They use an abundance of footnotes to intimidate others from criticizing their work. They make their argument philosophical, so that the implications to actual church practice (where the congregation resides) are hard to determine. They refuse to speak up in church to correct misunderstandings or misinterpretations of theology, or the Bible, or of history.

Professors often find themselves between the pressures to affirm the "orthodoxy" that congregations and students demand, and the call they feel God has given them to do profound and scholarly work to further the kingdom of God on earth.

I wonder what would happen if professors practiced church discipleship, teaching ways of interpreting the Bible, of thinking about God and science, and of the history of Christian thought. I wonder how most of the people in our churches would respond. How would you respond?

What would happen if we decided that loving God doesn't mean demanding the exact same formulations generation after generation, as if our ways of thinking about God are perfect and divine, but instead realize that loving God means going on the journey to grope after God, though He is not far from each of us? What would happen if the scholarship we, as Christians, fund actually makes its way into the life of our churches?

If it shouldn't impact us as the Church, then why on earth do we fund Christian scholarship?

Monday, November 12, 2007

The healing embrace

The concept of forgiveness intrigues me.

I was in a Bible study many years ago where we were talking about forgiveness. A single woman was talking about her yet-to-be-found future husband. She said that if her future husband ever cheated on her, she thought she could forgive him, but she didn't think she could ever trust him again. She said she would always have trouble trusting him, or wonder where he was when coming home late from work, or wonder who he was emailing. I don't remember what we said to her in the Bible study, but that story stuck in my head, because that is a story of forgiveness in which no one is actually forgiven. (It's actually more like the wrong kind of forgiveness.)

On the surface, forgiveness doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It seems to me that if you don't want a person to do something, like cheat on their husband, or steal, or kill, then you make the penalty so severe that it serves as sufficient deterrent. Plus, it has the added benefit of removing certain offending individuals from normal societal circulation so that their influence is minimized, if not eliminated all together as in the case of capital punishment.

Unforgiveness seems to make the most sense, because to forgive seems to mean that you open yourself up to being victimized again. Forgiveness seems like an invitation to a worrisome life, where you constantly have to cast a wary eye on the previous offenders, in fear of them offending again. Forgiveness seems to be an undesirable situation in which you have to adopt strange new actions that keep you from being hurt over and over and over by people who want to take advantage of your forgiveness. How does forgiveness ever really make sense?

As I've groped for a better understanding of the complex beast that is forgiveness, two Bible passages have shaped my thinking more than anything else, though the book "Faces of Forgiveness" comes close. One is Matthew 9:1-8, and the other is Matthew 18:21-35. (These passages are just 2 of many examples, but they tell the story in ways that really grip me.)

The Matthew 9 passage is a story about Jesus and the paralytic. When the paralytic's friends brought him to Jesus, Jesus told him that he was forgiven of his sins. After a bit of a scuffle with the teachers of the law, Jesus said:
Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home.

It seems to me that Jesus here is linking forgiveness to healing in a way that we frequently don't think about. At least in this passage, they are synonymous. Forgiveness and healing go together to the extent that "Your sins are forgiven" is the same as saying "Get up and walk".

Using this lens of forgiveness and healing, other passages start to make more sense to me. The parable of the prodigal son, for instance, isn't just about the depth of the love the father has for the wayward son, but it is also about the extent of healing extended to the prodigal. The prodigal wasn't accepted back into family life as the black sheep who would always be viewed with suspicion. Instead, he was restored, re-clothed, and loved in a way that doesn't quite make sense. It was the other son, the good son, who showed the kind of forgiveness that seems to make sense - the kind of forgiveness that merely tolerates the presence of those who are wayward, but never really trusts or accepts them back into right relationship. The "good" son rejects the healing embrace of forgiveness. The father knows better.

Paul exhorts us to remember to debt of love we owe to one another. Viewed through the lens of the healing embrace, if the prodigal son were to re-offend he would not be deterred by the violence of punishment, but rather by the crushing reality of life without the radical love of his father. The debt of love doesn't make make the prodigal fear the punishment heaped on him by others, but instead makes him fear thee punishment he heaps on himself through a life without the healing embrace. Perhaps that is also why Christians should visit the prisoners - to help them understand the healing embrace that they may have never had, and to welcome them into a community they never want to leave. Without such love and forgiveness, it's no wonder they re-offend.

Here's my point. If we are truly forgiven to the measure that we forgive, then perhaps some measure of our (my?) spiritual dryness is because we haven't learned how to give the healing embrace. Maybe sometimes the distance there seems to be between God and me (us?) isn't some inexplicable dark night of the soul, but rather a symptom of my own inability to forgive.

Perhaps the strangeness we feel at our family gatherings, or with our spouses, or in our Sunday School classes happens because we are constantly surrounded by people who don't know how to give the healing embrace, and are constantly wary of a relationship in which they might get hurt. Or, maybe it is us who can't give the embrace. Perhaps a portion of the animosity the secular world has for the church is because we have all failed in our ability to forgive in ways that mend, correct, and welcome.

I wonder how often what we call forgiveness is really no more than saying "that's okay". Instead, I wonder what would happen if we, instead of dismissing the moment of forgiveness, remembered Matthew 9 and extended forgiveness and healing as if they could never exist apart from one another.

Perhaps the true Kingdom of God happens when the true healing embrace of forgiveness is offered freely, even to those who want to see us dead. Maybe we, as Christians, need to be reminded a little more often of what a true healing embrace looks like.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The new dirty word: Introvert

I'm an introvert - a strong one at that. I need time alone and apart to recharge. I need time to process the things that have happened to me. I need time alone to sort through the emotions and situations and words and arrive at some semblance of an answer. I need time to reflect. I need time to figure out who I am in light of everything I have experienced, and everything I believe.

If I recall, approximately 30% of the population in the United States are introverts. By the way, that percentage goes up as IQ increases. Make of that what you will.

Since the majority of the American population are on the extrovert side of the fence, introverts tend to be misunderstood. I read a pretty good article a couple of months ago entitled "Top 5 Things Every Extrovert Should Know About Introverts". You should check it out - it's an easy read. To reiterate the article, introverts are not shy, arrogant, or socially inept, as they tend to be labeled. Instead, introverts are simply not group focused, intolerant of shallow conversation, and socially reserved.

In a society that values the quick satisfaction that can be given by a Google search, or by a cheap laugh from watching an episode of The Office, or by that energized feeling you get when you hang out with that ultra-extrovert who "brings the party", that misunderstanding cuts deep. Images of spontaneous interaction capture our minds and our hearts - whether it kissing a stranger in the street during a fit of joy, dancing with that strange girl in the club, or meeting the perfect guy in the baking goods aisle of the grocery store. These things capture us because, as extroverts see it, interaction is what runs the world. Things get done when people rub elbows, when they party together and get to know one another. People only get energized when they are around other people and can feel the closeness of human presence. The person who brings the party is the person who brings the life and energy to the world; the human dance is what gives motion to our being. In such a world, introvert is a dirty word.

And so, as I've done more often than I should, introverts make nice and act like extroverts in order to be accepted, even when they would rather find new friends at Borders Bookstore than at Williams Uptown Pub and Peanut Bar. Yet as I've considered the real hopes and fears and struggles of the people I've talked to, I've realized something important - everybody needs to know an introvert who acts like an introvert. And, everybody needs to know an extrovert who acts like an extrovert.

With too many of the extroverts I know, communication can't get past the surface. Sure, there's a lot of talking going on, but not much actual communication that makes a difference. Sometimes lack of communication manifests itself as problems with family, sometimes as problems with getting into bad relationships, and sometimes as problems with thinking about God.

Sometimes it takes an extrovert discussing their broken relationships with an introvert to figure out how to get past all the years of hurt and misunderstanding in order to actually communicate the depths of their feelings to someone else. Sometimes it takes having a deep conversation with someone familiar with the deep to help you figure out what you don't even know about yourself. Introverts help us to go deep.

With too many introverts that I know, their thoughts are more important than the thing they are thinking about. I'm frequently guilty of this myself. Sure, there's a lot of thinking going on, but not much that makes a difference to what is being thought about. Sometimes this manifests itself as questionable statements like, "It's the thought that counts" or "Do what I say, not what I do." Sometimes, it manifests itself as being unapproachable, or unloving, or unrealistic about how the world actually works.

Sometimes it takes an introvert working alongside an extrovert to figure out how the thoughts and ideas and theories actually apply to reality. Sometimes it takes rubbing elbows with those who are outward focused to realize what a difference saying the little things actually makes. Sometimes it takes a quick conversation with someone who makes the world come alive to figure out what you don't realize about others. Extroverts help us meet with the real.

The reality is that we need one another. I can't help but wonder if the cosmic balance of human introverts to extroverts is on purpose. Maybe we need more doers in the world than thinkers. Maybe we need more people in the world to be the Mother Theresas, rubbing elbows, starting the party, and showing how to act in beautiful ways out of passion for action. At the end of the day, though, we need the Aquinas', too, thinking about the deep, churning up the dirt, and helping us to develop an internal dialog from which beauty may emerge.

But even in such a world as this, introvert is still a dirty word, because the deep is rarely pretty. Cover me, then, that I may have special honor.

...those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty...If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.