November 30, 2011

UPDATE: Pelagius Redivivus

Should Pelagius, a fourth century heretic, be reinstated and his positive contribution to Christian theology be acknowledged? This was the proposal in a resolution of Rev. Benno D. Pattison in a resolution submitted to the the 105th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. I reported on the proposal prior to the vote, and a commenter on that original post was kind enough to inform us of the Council's decision.

The measure to reinstate Pelagius was rejected, as reported in a summary of the actions taken at the Council meeting. I am glad to see that the members of the 105th Council did not adopt this resolution. They likely understand that it would bear virtually no real ecclesiastical weight. The teachings of Pelagius are widely regarded as error, and no declaration of a single diocese in a single denomination is going to have much effect on the position of the world Christian community. Indeed, the move would likely only further distance the Episcopal Church from worldwide historic Christianity.

It is worth noting that many ecclesial polities allow for any sort of legislative petitions or resolutions to be submitted for a vote by the ecclesial body. Unusual and eccentric items can easily come before the larger voting body; it would seem that this was one of those times. We can be grateful that the 105th Council exercised wisdom in rejecting this peculiar resolution.

November 10, 2011

Come What May

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 31, 2011.

Life is full of transitions. Whether it's a different job, a new marriage, the loss of a loved-one, a move to a new community, a new baby, or the move of a grown child out into the world for the first time, we all go through transitions, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Transitions sometimes bring grief, and sometimes they bring joy. They often bring new challenges even in the midst of excitement. Given the certainty of seasons of transition, the question for all of us is this: how will we navigate the changes that are a natural part of life? Several things come to mind.

First, we simply need to recognize that new seasons of life will come. Growth and change are natural parts of life. The scenery will change as we travel this journey. Transitions are often the most difficult when they are unexpected. So, when new things come, if we've learned to expect surprises, then they can be a little easier to navigate. We may not know what the specifics are, and it will never be the case that everything just works out nice and neatly, but if we expect changes to come in life, we'll be more prepared for them.

Second, it's important to remember that God is always at work to draw us ever closer in relationship to him. And transitions in life can be a big part of that. When things are least certain, when we are unprepared for what will happen next, these are some of the times in life that God is able to do some of his greatest works. It's easier for us to look to God in challenging times. And God uses those times to draw us into a deeper relationship.

I find it helpful to remember that, come what may, God is always busy about his work of making all things new, and the day is coming when God will remove the veil from his grand masterpiece of new creation and we will dwell in the new heavens and the new earth. In the meantime, we are on a journey forward. Will we be able to see what God is doing to make us into new creatures as we find our way forward through the challenges that are a part of life?
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Image: anankkml/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

November 4, 2011

Knowledge & Life after Death: The Surprising Epistemology of Shane Hipps

It seems the hoopla over Rob Bell's last book just won't go away (to the joy of the folks at HarperOne, I am sure), and more has been said from both sides than I have time (or, for that matter, care) to read. But one item that came across my desk this week struck me as quite interesting and somewhat peculiar considering the source.

The folks at ChurchLeaders.com are hosting some interchange between Shane Hipps, successor to Rob Bell as teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church, and Francis Chan, who wrote a book in response to Bell. With this post, I'd like to respond to some of what Shane Hipps' said, especially with regard to how knowledge is to be had.

Let me say up front that this is not a post about hell, Rob Bell, or universalism. It is a post about logic, consistency, and epistemology (the discipline that studies how we know things). Those matters are significant, because if we are to say anything at all, especially in print and not least with regard to important and sometimes controverted issues, then we must speak with clarity, consistency, and wisdom.

Let me say up front that I appreciate much of what Shane Hipps has written. I certainly disagree with him on some things, but I do so with gratefulness for much of what he has said. He has thought more and more deeply about the relationship between changing media forms and the Church than most, and his work in that area has had significant impact on my own understanding of those issues. So, even though I write today with some concerns about Hipps' epistemology, I aim to do so with charity acknowledging that much of his work has had a weighty effect on my own thought and is valuable for the Church.

That said, let's turn to the issues at hand. In his essay at ChurchLeaders.com, Hipps said this:
As a Christian who believes in the Bible and Jesus, I have found the intensity and certainty of the debate all very bizarre. It’s strange that so much passion and ink has been spilled over something that is all speculation.
Here’s what I mean: If you died, took pictures, and came back to life again, then you would know with certainty what happens after death. Of course, you would only know what happens to you, not everyone else. But if you haven’t died, you can only speculate about what happens to you and everyone else.
Hipps here reveals what he believes is necessary to have certain knowledge about something (or, at least, life after death). That is, he reveals something about his epistemology, and what he reveals is striking to me given other things that he will say later in the post. For Hipps, it would seem that certain knowledge needs (1) personal experience and (2) verifiable evidence. With regard to life after death, to be able to speak with certainty, one would need to die and come back to life (personal experience) and have pictures (verifiable evidence). And even with these two things, you can only speak with certain knowledge about your own experience and not that of others. No one presently available to us has either personal experience of life after death or pictures; thus, we are right to be skeptical of their speculations.

The reason all this strikes me as peculiar is because Hipps identifies himself as one empathetic to the postmodern ethos (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, 17), but his comments above on knowledge come across as deeply modernistic. Modern epistemology demanded verifiable empirical evidence as the only source for true and certain knowledge. And if such evidence could not be produced, the only other option was doubt and skepticism, because, after all, if it's not verifiable, it's just speculation, fantasy, a waste of our time.

The problem with modernist epistemology was that it was driven by a presupposition that ruled some answers out of court before the questions were even asked. This is precisely why many modernists rejected the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. "We know things like resurrection don't actually happen," says the champion of modernism, "no one available to us has ever experienced or witnessed such a thing. And we certainly can't verify such claims. Thus, they are not to be considered available to be known." The modernist presupposition rules out the possibility of something like resurrection before the question is even raised.

Hipps here falls prey to the same critique. He has specific presuppositions about how something can be known with certainty, namely through personal experience and verifiable evidence. And his presuppositions about how things are known rule out all sorts of answers (indeed, even all answers) when the question of life after death is raised. From the perspective of Hipps' epistemology, there is no reason to even ask such questions, because we can't know anything about that; it's all speculation. Is it fair to rule out some answers before the question is ever asked?  One reason that modernism failed is that it did precisely that.

Another issue that comes up is whether Hipps' criteria for knowledge meet their own standard for knowledge. That is, can we experience and verify that experience and verifiability are indeed the basis and criteria for certain knowledge? Hipps says that to have certain knowledge we need personal experience and verifiable evidence. But how do we know that he is right? Let's apply his own criteria for certain knowledge to his criteria for certain knowledge. Does anyone have an experience to show us that experience and verifiability are necessary for knowledge? Is there some data somewhere that we can verify in order that we may know that these criteria are indeed the standard for how you know things? What if there is some other way of knowing? Have tests been done to rule out other possibilities for how things can be known? Does anyone have pictures?

The reality is that there are plenty of theories of knowledge out there that do not take Hipps' criteria as the exclusive standard for knowledge. Perhaps things can be known in other ways. Perhaps there are other kinds of evidence, legal or historical. Perhaps we can know things because they are revealed by a trustworthy source. If so, it is not the case that experience and verifiability are the only means by which a thing may be known.

The last concern I'll raise here is this. At least one other affirmation that Hipps makes in the very same post does not stand up to his criteria for knowledge. He says:
Now having said this, I’m only aware of one person who died, and I mean really died, like three days dead, and came back to life again. His name was Jesus. Upon his return from the dead, he didn’t believe anymore; now he knew.
Hipps emphatically affirms that the very dead Jesus of Nazareth was raised again to life. Whether Hipps would say he has certain knowledge of this, I don't know, but he certainly doesn't seem to put the resurrection of Jesus in the category of speculation. He affirms it emphatically. The problem for Hipps is that the resurrection of Jesus does not meet his criteria for knowledge. No one alive has a credible experience of meeting the embodied Jesus and there is no verifiable evidence (like a photograph) that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. So, according to Hipps' own epistemology, we can only speculate about the resurrection of Jesus. Nothing can be said of it with certainty or definiteness. The inconsistent thing is that Hipps affirms definitely and emphatically that Jesus was raised from the dead, even though his epistemology says such a thing cannot be known. And in public discourse and debate inconsistency is a problem; unless, of course (and with a tip of my hat to my college logic prof), you are not worried about little things like consistency.

At the end of the day, Hipps here falls prey to the postmodern critique of modern epistemology. I would have thought that Hipps would recognize this, and I would have expected to find him on the other side of the modern/post-modern debate. Perhaps I've simply not read enough of his work, but given his affinity for postmodernism, his epistemology surprises me.

November 3, 2011

Abundant Life

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 24, 2011.

I enjoy watching my children do new things. Naomi and I recently took the kids off for a short weekend get-away, and we made sure they got to have some new and fun experiences. Our son enjoyed attending his first major league baseball game. He had a great time learning the chants, clapping his hands, and cheering for the home team. I loved getting to watch him take joy in it. We also took him to an aquarium where he could see all sorts of fish and other sea life. He especially liked seeing the big whales. It's a great deal of fun for him to get to do things like that, but I think it's even more fun for me to watch him enjoy life and experience it in a full and abundant way.

My experience as a parent has been a big part of my ongoing theological education. So many different aspects of my relationships with my children have led me to think more carefully about the way my own Heavenly Father desires to relate to me. And when I get to watch my children enjoy life, it reminds me that God wants to see me enjoy life also, and that he has gone out of his way to make that possible.

So much about the Christian faith continues to amaze me. One of those amazing things is the picture of God as one who seeks us. God is a seeking God. Even when we were far away and estranged God sought us out to initiate a new kind of relationship with us. This is the mystery and the beauty of the incarnation, which is that event in which the God who called all things into existence took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, in order to be with us so that he could enjoy us and we could enjoy him.

God knows that we can only enjoy his best for our lives when we are in a life-giving relationship with him through Jesus Christ. In order to make that possible, he came to us when we could not come to him. That is a big deal. So, the next time you are enjoying time with the people you love, I hope that you are reminded just how much God loves you and longs to enjoy you and share his abundance with you. And I hope you receive that abundance.
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Image: Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitialPhotos.net

November 2, 2011

Free Grace

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 17, 2011.

Many of our relationships operate on a give and take basis. We give something; we expect something in return. I scratch your back; you scratch mine. We go into relationships expecting to get something for what we put in, a return on our investment. This kind of expectation permeates our professional, recreational, and religious lives. Such expectations even find their way into our marriages. This is not new to our culture. This attitude of expectation has been present for centuries. We often come into relationships with a natural give-and-take mentality. What can this person do for me? Perhaps there are a few exceptions. Sometimes we will see a marriage or a friendship in which there is virtually no thought for the self. But I suspect if we could examine hearts, such a find would be rare. All too often, we accept or reject people, whether explicitly or more subtly, based on how well they live up to our expectations. It comes to us naturally.

All this leads me to think that many of us believe we can approach God in a similar way. I know at least that I have. We think we can do something for him that will make him want to do something for us. We think: if we only go to church more often, God will be more pleased. If we put a little something in the plate, maybe God will answer our prayers. If we live the right kind of life, God will favor us and save us. That's how we relate to others. Why would we think our relationship with God should be any different?

But it is different. What do we have that God needs? What could I possibly bring to God that he just can't do without? Nothing! There's nothing that I have that God needs. He is fully sufficient in himself. I can do nothing to put him in my debt or to make him favor me. God doesn't bargain, barter, or negotiate. There's no give-a-little and get-a-little. God doesn't want his back scratched.

God doesn't relate to us like that, and I'm sure glad that he doesn't. If my relationship with God depended on what I could do for him from day to day, then I would be a wreck. If God's attitude towards me depended on how well I performed, then life would be a constant worry of whether or not I had performed well enough, whether I had lived up to his expectations. I am deeply thankful that God relates to me differently from the way other relationships often go.

But if God relates to us differently, what is the difference? The God revealed in Jesus Christ offers himself to us as pure gift. He desires to relate to us not for what we can do for him but simply because he is kind. He longs to bestow his extravagant mercy on us. He is eager to extend the generosity of his grace. He doesn't want to bargain; indeed, he will not bargain. He doesn't want us for what we can do; he wants us simply because we are.

I don't know where you stand with God, but I'm guessing there's at least one person out there who has been trying to wheel-and-deal with God, and it's killing you. My hope and prayer for you this week is that you will be able to feel the warmth of God's free grace, given without a bargain and just because he loves you. It might even change the way you related to other people.
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November 1, 2011

Purgatory Now?

Purgatory is one of those interesting theological ideas that Protestants and Catholics wrangle over, not least because it carries rather significant implications for one's understanding of the work of Christ and salvation. Have our departed brothers and sisters in the faith entered into a time of suffering during which they are prepared for entrance into the presence of God? Or do they enter immediately into paradise made fit for the presence of the Holy One by the blood and righteousness of Christ alone? And what will happen to us? Where will we be found after our deaths? Well, in honor of All Saints' Day and the hope that is before us, here's provocative quote from N. T. Wright's little book, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed:
In fact, Paul makes it clear here (Rom 8) and elsewhere that it's the present life that is meant to function as purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some post-mortem state, are the valley we have to pass through in order to reach the glorious future. The present life is bad enough from time to time, goodness knows, without imagining gloom and doom after death as well. In fact, I think I know why purgatory became so popular, why Dante's middle volume is the one people most easily relate to. The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection, from the present on to the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story. It is where we are now. If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus as Lord, if we are baptized members of his body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings which form the gateway to life. Of course, this means that for millions of our theological and spiritual ancestors death will have brought a pleasant surprise. They had been gearing themselves up for a long struggle ahead, only to find it was already over (34-35, italics original).

Purgatory now? Much could be said. What do you think about that?