Words and Scripture

Words as signs

One of the jobs and (occasionally) joys of thinking philosophically is to recognize the things that are overlooked; it is to recognize the forgotten; to highlight the “obvious”. Indeed this is true when considering the nature of our communication. We are a speaking species, and we use a most unique method to communicate with one another: words. No other species we know of uses words as an essential component of their interaction and being. We begin using words as quickly as our parents can make us, and it’s truly a necessary means of adjoining one mind to another and ultimately of forming society.

Every sentient species, or most at least, can communicate with others in some way. They use vocalizations, gestures, or some other means specific to their nature. For humans, our use of words are actually a use of signs: things that point to other things or realities. Indeed, they are a special class of signs that we created and may be thought of as conventional (as opposed to natural); language is natural, but the specific words that inhere are formed by us. As St. Augustine describes in his work On Christian Doctrine, words are used for “drawing forth and conveying into another’s mind what the giver of the sign has in his own mind” (Book II, Ch. 2). For instance, when one uses the word “horse” in conversing with another they are using that sign to point to the animal John Wayne rides on the Silver Screen. Words, in a similar way to thoughts, are intentional, and aim at some other thing.

As is evident, there are two modes of communicating via words, that being speaking and writing. Speech is of course when one vocalizes words normally to be heard by another, a hearer. The spoken word is one that comes in and out being rather swiftly, unless we have utilized some technology to record the moment. The written word is precisely the original technological innovation to do just that; however because it lacks the presence of the speaker and the auxiliary conveyance inherent in personal interaction it can be a more complex phenomenon. As it often transcends the paradigm in which it was etched, and can be read long after the author is gone, it adds further dimensions of concern for a reader. Beyond just knowing the language, the reader must deal with translations, foreign allusions, historical circumstances that illuminate meaning and the like.

But the purpose in using speech and the written word are the same: to allow the hearer or reader to grasp the meaning of the speaker or writer. One has to recognize the word-sign, and that directs him to the object or reality being addressed; in other words, there are two components that the hearer or reader must get in order to get the meaning of a statement: the sign and the thing-pointed-to. We can say there has been a successful communication when the receiver has recognized both. To utilize our example above, if someone says the word “horse”, in order to understand them we must know that “horse” is a sign that points to the four legged, long haired, apple-eating, seemingly complaisant man-carrier.

Because this is where the crux lies, if there is a mistake in either case the hearer or reader will suffer ignorance. For instance, if when the speaker uses the word “horse”, and the hearer recognizes the sign but has a quite insufficient knowledge of the thing-pointed-to, he will adopt or employ a false view. If his knowledge of horses is only gleaned from the Hollywood, he might arrive at the conclusion that horses are eagerly disposed from birth to be saddled and directed by man. But this, of course, is only achieved with great effort and time, with a taming of their nature. Under normal circumstances, his concept of a horse can be corrected by some equine expert or investigated via regular avenues of human reason. Also his ignorance probably doesn’t have much bearing on his livelihood.

Sacred Scripture

With these thoughts in mind, how does it impact our thinking about something that purportedly does have great impact on one’s livelihood? Sacred Scripture is recognized by Christians to be the inspired testimony of the Incarnation and full of the teachings of Christ and His Apostles; if that’s true, one’s understanding of Scripture might make an eternal difference. It is also claimed to be inerrant in its revealed truth concerning the Faith. Knowing what it means would seem to be of the utmost import.

Obviously it is composed of words, which means that if the above analysis is correct, there are at least two things the reader must recognize to come to an understanding. They must recognize the word itself, and the object it points to. They must interpret the signs on the page, and call to mind the realities or things pointed to. How can one know if they are interpreting the sign correctly, calling to mind to right thing-pointed-to, and if they understand the nature of the thing-pointed-to? Who has the authority to correct one’s interpretation, or one’s understanding?

Logically there seems to be these possibilities:

  • The individual himself
  • A learned individual (an expert or scholar)
  • A group of individuals (or a group of experts)
  • Some other entity that is particularly authorized to perform that role

For an individual to be the authority of determining the meaning, he will inevitably suffer from subjectivism, and tends towards solipsism. In this case, the individual who believes that horses are not born wild and untrained but domesticated has the authority to overrule reality. If he has the authority to think whatever he wants about the sign and the thing-pointed-to, he seems to be inconsonant with the demands of objective truth. He is wrong, but he “makes” himself right. The nature of something that is true objectively is that in order for one to recognize it, they must conform their minds to it, not vice-versa. Further, if two individuals read the same text and form two contradictory notions, they cannot both be right. The principle of non-contradiction, which underlies not only our minds but all of reality, would be overridden. This literally means the end of truth itself.

What about the situation with the imperfect understanding of a horse? We said an individual could perfect their concept via rational investigation to overcome their ignorance. Why not here in the case of Sacred Scripture? The difference lies in the fact that knowledge of horses is inherently something that can be discovered via human reason, while the objects of faith are beyond our rational penetration. The whole point of revealed truth is that we cannot come to know it on our own. We also said above that the equine-challenged person could consult an equine expert to correct his knowledge. Is this appeal to experts possible in the realm of understanding Scripture?

There are certainly many who are educated in the necessary fields to read Sacred Scripture well. They have mastered the ancient languages, and other disciplines required to read the texts how they were intended by the author. There is not doubt these skills are very helpful, and ultimately necessary to achieve understanding. As most will agree, the historical-critical method of Scriptural scholarship has yielded great return on better understanding the historical paradigm and intricacies therein. However, it is also true that no amount of education can overcome the limitations of the individual; hard as we try, we cannot become omniscient nor experts beyond a fault. Scholars are notoriously divided on essentially every issue they undertake to in study in history, philosophy, and even the physical sciences. The authority they would exercise in the matter would at root be tainted by the same problems as the above case. They would perhaps trip over higher-level issues, but trip they would (and do). In other words, while the expert has a good shot of recognizing the word-signs correctly in Sacred Scripture, they cannot be guaranteed of recognizing the thing-pointed-to.

What about a group of individuals? Can “strength in numbers” provide a basis of how to understand the meaning of Sacred Scripture? We know that individuals, whether learned or not, are not in the position of determining the meaning because they inevitably impose their own limitations on its meaning. But perhaps a group or majority of people can correct the problems one might have on their own? This seems to be a better option, because it does cohere with how we treat other disciplines. Science, history, philosophy, mathematics and others have their way of referring to their community in order to justify results, and that can head off implicit blunder or even aid in critical breakthroughs. However, if we notice, we have already undercut this option. While the democratic principle is useful to recognize how most people think, or even to correct errors in certain cases, it is in principle incapable of being a criterion for truth. If the majority believes something, that doesn’t make it true. We can list countless examples of the predominance of a given idea that was later proved to be false, or can be logically shown to be so. If sixty percent of Americans believe that two and two equal three, that doesn’t make it so; even if they think it is four, that doesn’t make it so.

If these options for safeguarding one’s interpretation from error are lacking, is there an entity that is capable of doing so? Is there a mechanism or authority that doesn’t suffer the limitations of the individual or groups of individuals? It would have to be something that is specially formed or accredited to avoid error in interpreting the meaning of Scripture. If there is objective truth to be had there, it seems the answer is yes. If the Church is what she purports to be, then that is obviously the suitable authority. She has the capability to adjudicate between disputes about the word-signs and the object or realities pointed to. This doesn’t imply that the mysteries of the Faith will be resolved or explained away, but precisely that they won’t. Nor does it imply the Church is right about everything, but only about the content of the Faith and deductions from it. Many Christians will agree with this, though there may by some disagreement about the nature of the Church. That is a discussion for another post, perhaps.

So far I’ve tried to suggest that it is in the nature of words to require a hearer or reader to interpret them in order to comprehend them; that they are signs that require one to recognize both the sign itself and that which it points to. In order to come to an understanding when dealing with words, one must be correct on both counts. In normal cases, this requirement can be met by abilities to gain knowledge and perfect our concepts through experience and reasoning. However, it is precisely not possible in the case of Revelation because it is in principle beyond our reason; it can be explored by reason but not attained by it. This means there must be some kind of authority in order to correct our interpretations if they are wrong or are lacking. It cannot be individuals, scholars, or majorities because all appear lacking in their competency. In the end, it seems the only way to safeguard the objective truth contained within Scripture is if there is some entity specially equipped to correct us. This entity seems to be the Church.


Manhood™ or, how the Evangelical obsession with manliness is weird and worrisome

IMG_0171If you want to make big bucks and become a popular speaker within evangelical Christianity today, apparently you need to speak on manhood. Of course, you need to give a wink and a nod to the typical spiritual traits such as being a good father, providing for your family, and so on. But really, you need to encourage men to grow beards, watch football, hunt things, shoot guns, and watch Clint Eastwood movies. Men who worry about their shoes, about their appearance, or about their smell need not apply because they’re pansies.

Let me say, the growing trend in the cult of masculinity – specifically of a very American West variety – is really weird. I say this as someone who has a beard (and will always have a beard), loves sports, and has seen every single Clint Eastwood movie out there. But I don’t do those things because I’m a man (with exception to the beard), I do them because I just happen to enjoy them. Yet, we have books that obsess over men being men. We have The Dude’s Guide to Manhood, which seems to have some pretty good chapters. Same with Manhood Restored. After all, there’s nothing wrong in telling men to be responsible adults; but how does that constitute manhood?

Now some might say, “Well, these books encourage spiritual aspects of being a man and don’t really play up the physical aspects.” Yet, that’s just not true. Notice who endorses the books; hunters, NFL players, college football coaches, outdoorsmen, and so on. You never see these books opining and writing of the virtues of baking or cleaning house. They tend to focus solely on the American ideal of manhood, of a tough, gruff, kick ass and take names kind of man. While it’s nearly impossible to divorce what it means to be a man from the culture one is in, we shouldn’t let our cultural views of manhood dictate our Biblical teachings on manhood.

Consider Al Mohler’s “Marks of Manhood,” where he explains what a man ought to look like. Upon first glance it seems like a really good list, but further review points out some pretty big holes. For one, why is almost every single point tied to the family unit? Are we implying that men who are single are somehow not men? What does this say about the numerous godly men (not to mention Christ) who never married or who are not called to marriage? Are they somehow lesser men? Likewise, how is the list exclusive to manhood? Are we saying that women ought to lack courage under fire (tell that to the numerous female martyrs or single moms who have the courage to raise their children and hold down a job). What about men who lack physical strength due to disease or some other ailment? Are they somehow disqualified from being a man? What about men stuck in a nation without a strong economy who therefore cannot provide for their families, or men in this nation which has a weak job market? They can’t hold “adult jobs” because the economy simply won’t allow it. Are they not men?

See, anyone can come up and say, “Well, those are exceptions to the rule,” but in the case of manhood we are talking about the essence of a thing, meaning there can’t be exceptions. The essence of a thing is the definition of a thing; the definition of a thing cannot change without the essence changing. Thus, the essence (or nature) of humans is a “rational animal.” All humans are rational animals, which is to say they’re both physical and immaterial. There are not and cannot be any exceptions. When we talk about manhood, we’re talking about a universal definition that requires universal applicability, but what Mohler (and many other evangelicals) offer lacks universal cohesion.

Think of it this way:

Someone claims that to be a human person one must be a rational animal that has white skin. We then run across a man who is a rational animal, but has dark skin. We must then conclude that either our definition is wrong, or the man is not really a human person. This is actually what we see in the abortion debate. People provide the definition of human as, “viable outside the womb” or “looks like a human.” Of course, when the issue of viability or looks (are any of us truly viable outside of the womb? do any of us truly look human?) arise, the definition falls apart because it lacks universal application, that is, it’s subjective and arbitrary. The same game is played with the evangelical pursuit of manhood; all definitions offered tend to be subjective and arbitrary, or are non-exclusive to men (such as, “Must be godly” or “able to raise a family,” these attributes apply to women as well).

When we begin to elevate manhood as some independent virtue with arbitrary standards, we are left to do the same thing with womanhood. In such instances we begin to revert back to olden days where women weren’t allowed to hold careers, find education, or speak up for themselves. A good woman is at home raising kids, baking bread, and doing house chores while the man is out earning a living for the family. Such a view of men and women, however, is antithetical to how the Church functioned prior to the rise of American manhood. After all, such definitions of “manhood” and “womanhood” depends on there being a family, but the existence of a family is not always the case. If a woman has no family, or a man has no family, what then? We cannot continue to tie our understandings of what it means to be a man to a sexual act that results in offspring.

Another problem with our approach to manhood and womanhood is that when applied to a marriage, men inherently end up being spiritually superior to their wives. Many conservative evangelicals would look at the previous statement and think, “Yeah, and?” They’d see it as an interpretation of Ephesians 5, where men are to be the leaders within the home, or the “head” of the family. Yet, this is a bad interpretation of Ephesians 5, where though men are called to be the head, they are called to be like Christ. One constant throughout Paul’s writings to the Church is that we are to take on a mind like Christ, we are to become as Christ; in other words, spiritually speaking, we are to be Christ’s equals, not inferiors. Thus, if we take a literal understanding of Ephesians 5, then the husband is to be spiritually equal with his wife, not superior to her. However, our pursuit of the cult of manhood tends to elevate the man spiritually above his wife.

Consider the words of St. John Chrysostom in his advice to men concerning their wives:

“Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers.” (p. 61 in On Marriage and Family Life).

Notice how he has them seeking meaning from each other. While their spiritual manifestations of roles within the relationship might look different, this implied idea of men being the “spiritual leader” in that they are more spiritual than their wives runs against Scripture. Prior to this sentence, he advised husbands to pursue things which please God and the matters of the family would begin to handle themselves. He didn’t tell men to be men or to pursue some “manhood,” but to please God.

One aspect of Christianity is that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female…” While this calling doesn’t erase certain distinctions between cultures or genders, it does mean that ultimately we’re all called to the same thing (unity with Christ). It means that Christianity calls men to balance. Within the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, if you walk into a cathedral you’re immediately struck by the Theotokos (God-bearer, Mary) with Christ in her lap. Here we have the ideal woman giving birth and raising the ideal man. In such a situation, one sees that while manhood does exist, it exists in balance with womanhood within the Christian tradition. Here we see a distinct difference between men and women, but see that Christianity unifies the two in equality without destroying the distinctions.

Certainly, “manhood” and “womanhood” exist, but they exist as cultural types and not absolutes. Most men tend to view life and the Church differently than most women; that is what makes the two sexes distinct. These differences, however, are never absolute and universal, but tend to be types. Most men want a Church that challenges, involves them, isn’t sentimental, and gives a clear goal. This isn’t to say that all men want this or that women don’t want it, just that most men want a Church that offers these things and does so in a way that appeals to them.

Ultimately, Christianity is about taking imperfect humans and making them perfect. This is accomplished via following Christ, regardless of if one is a man or a woman. Pursuing the Christian virtues and doing all one can to become like Christ, to unify with Him, is ultimately what it takes to be a true man (or true woman). While there are distinctions between being a man and being a woman, those distinctions are more cultural than scriptural (though they will always exist in every culture), which is why it’s better to simply pursue Christ and proper Christian living than to pursue some arbitrary standards of “manhood.”

Wealth vs. Same-Sex Unions or, the Convenience of Moral Relativism

DSC02085Whether or not Scripturally justified (via various hermeneutical gymnastics), the traditional Christian approach to homosexuality is that the action is wrong (though historically the Church is silent on attraction). Whether that’s right or wrong is certainly up for debate, but historically the Church has been against such actions. The historical trend has led Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox to stand in the way of allowing same-sex unions, a stance that of course futile. Within a generation every state will allow same-sex unions. Regardless, it hasn’t stopped Christians who follow the traditional teachings on homosexuality from doing all they can to prevent same-sex unions from occurring.

Another often ignored Christian teaching is the teaching against greed, or against opulence. Both the Bible and Church tradition clearly speak against the displays of wealth, of gaining wealth on the backs of the oppressed, and of generally holding onto that wealth. Ironically, such a history on the teaching of wealth has led to Christians really doing nothing. Granted, the Catholic Church has typically held a “liberal” approach to economics (along with its own economic system of Distributism) and the Orthodox have encouraged personal giving, but Evangelicals have almost moved entirely away from the issue. Even Catholics and Orthodox don’t like the idea of condemning the wealthy for being wealthy. Such an approach is almost uniquely American; it is also a new approach based on a progressive interpretation of Scriptures.

See, the Bible is clear that when the greedy hold onto their wealth, the entire society suffers for it. It is why God commanded rich Israelites to give a portion of their gains to the needy. Ignoring the spiritual purposes for giving (such as the fact that God gave His own Son as a gift for all, so we can give our income – something that is not from us to begin with – to help those in need), there are very practical purposes for being against the centralization of wealth. Study after study shows that when wealth is held in the hands of the few, the many suffer. Part of what made the American economy so powerful and successful for a number of years is that income inequality simply wasn’t an issue. With the rise of income inequality in the past few decades we’ve watched the middle class virtually disappear within America, and the ramifications are horrendous.

The above arguments aside, the Bible is very explicit on how the wealthy are to handle their money. Paul instructs the wealthy to be ready to share their money with those in need (1 Timothy 6:17-18). Proverbs 28:27 says that a wealthy man who gives has found true wealth, but the one who doesn’t give is cursed. James curses those who curse the poor man, arguing that the poor are called to be rich in faith (James 2:5-6), which of course contradicts the modern attitude toward the poor as “leeches” and “lazy.” Deuteronomy 8 explicitly states that it is God who grants wealth, not the individual. There is no such thing as a “self-made man,” merely one whom God has blessed. Proverbs 14 goes further to argue that whoever oppresses a poor man insults God. Paul again states that those who desire to be rich will simply fall into temptation that will result in destruction (1 Timothy 6:9-10). John says that those who fail to give lack the love of God within their hearts (1 John 3:17). God condemned the nation of Judah for illicit gain and protecting the wealthy, which harmed the poor (Jeremiah 22:17).

There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of passages on wealth and poverty, with most condemning those who are wealthy by illicit gain or for not giving to the poor. In Amos 2:6-8 God condemns Israel for their treatment of the poor, specifically for making money off the poor and oppressing them. The entire fifth chapter of Nehemiah is about him stopping the oppression of the poor. What is the oppression he is so against? The charging of interest, the mortgaging of fields, the borrowing of money to survive a famine. In fact, Nehemiah demands that the nobles redistribute their wealth and give back to the poor all they have taken. We then find out that Nehemiah did this while he was the governor of the land.

The entire point of the above is to show that God’s moral commands and legislative commands tend towards social justice, or at least not oppressing the poor. In the Bible, oppression seems to be when a worker is given a wage that is below what is livable, or when people make a profit on the poor (that is, increasing profit margins by keeping workers impoverished). Or when banks and other companies make a massive profit on the interest they charge people, especially when those people took out loans simply to eat or survive.

The Bible is incredibly explicit on the treatment of the poor, that when the wealthy become richer and the poorer become poorer, it is against God’s natural law. This is why no single society has ever lasted long in which the rich became richer and the poor became poorer; such a trend violates natural law, which is no different than trying to violate gravity. At some point, negative consequences follow.

Yet, Christians are relatively silent on the massive social injustices that have occurred in the past few years. In fact, many praise the rich. For those that recognize the problem, they argue against government involvement because, “it’s not the government’s place to place Christian morals on the rich.” Or, my favorite, “How can the government decide how much is too much.” I actually agree with these arguments, but then these Christians turn around and argue against homosexual marriage and homosexual unions, which is the government placing Christian morals on sexual actions! We quickly  become moral relativists when it comes to wealth, arguing, “We can’t know what wealth truly is” or “how much is too much?” But when it comes to sexuality, we’re ardent absolutists. These positions are incompatible – you can’t be a relativist when it comes to your pocketbook, but an absolutist when it comes to your pants.

Every single argument I’ve ever seen used to prohibit homosexual unions can in turn be used to prohibit the rich from being greedy. “It harms society,” “it’s disgusting,” “it goes against nature,” “it goes against God’s law,” “it goes against God’s intentions,” are all arguments that can be used against both homosexual unions and greed (if one follows a traditional interpretation of Scripture). If anything else, two men marrying each other does far less harm to society than a rich business owner hoarding his wealth. From a practical perspective (and spiritual perspective), the rich oppressor damages a society far more than someone engaged in sexual sin.

I am not taking a stand on these issues, at least not a legislative stand. I don’t want the government involved in my marriage or in my pocketbook, at least beyond what is necessary. What I’m arguing for, however, is some consistency. It is nothing more than relativism to argue that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but turn around and say nothing about wealth. It’s hypocrisy to push for legislation banning homosexual marriages, but fight any and all attempts to curb the greed implicit within our economic system.

While there’s nothing wrong with Christians pushing for economic justice or improvements to our economic system (as this is a way to promote aiding the oppressed), perhaps we would be better served to follow the example of Christ. Christ didn’t hold protests outside of brothels, nor did He attempt to convince the Romans to increase taxes on tax collectors (who did oppress the poor). Instead, He dined with them. He dined with both the sexually and fiscally immoral, showing them there was a better path. Rather than engaging in politics – which is necessary at times, but comes with a cost – He pursued the issues personally. The reason is because the Gospel extends beyond moral actions. Even if we legislated morality to the point that people had no choice but to lead moral lives, this would still not save them, nor would it save our society. It is only through holiness that a society can be saved, not the hypocrisy of picking and choosing which culture war we will fight.

Realism, Nominalism, and the Marriage Debate **updated**

*Update at bottom of post

Even though the vast majority of people who have an opinion on gay marriage may not realize it, their opinion is ultimately shaped by their view of metaphysics (even if they’ve never consciously developed such a view). In metaphysics, especially in the West, there are two predominant views: Realism and nominalism.

For most of our readers, those two terms have no meaning, so it’s best to explain them before going on. Realism is the belief that things have a perfect form whereas nominalism is the belief that we give the form to things. Since there is no easier way to understand outside of an analogy, it’s best to use an analogy.

Think of a tree. We know when we’re looking at a tree even if we don’t know the type of tree. Realism teaches us that we know this because there is an ideal form of tree; there is an ultimate version of tree and all other trees are copies (albeit imperfect copies) of that ideal form of a tree. Nominalism says that there is that tree and other objects that look like it. There is no ideal form of a tree; each “tree” exists independently and we only call these objects “trees” because it makes it easier for us to categorize things. Thus, there is no absolute form of a tree, only our constructed view.

When applied to ethics, the issue becomes a bit clearer. Realism says that there are right things and wrong things independent of the human experience. Thus, murder is wrong even if a society says that murder is right. Nominalism, on the other hand, states that ethics are only as true as a society says. There is no absolute right and wrong, only mental constructs of what is right and what is wrong. Thus, murder is wrong so long as the people agree to say that it is wrong; once the people stop saying it is wrong, there are no moral implications to taking an innocent person’s life.

Thus, the realists look at marriage and say, “There is an ideal form of marriage to which all other marriages must achieve or attempt to achieve.” The nominalists look at marriage and say, “Marriage is what we say it is, we can define it however we desire.” And this is where we see the whole issue of homosexual marriage. Once we strip back the pithy responses, the strawmen arguments, and even the moral judgments, it is here we see the most basic level of this debate: Does an ideal to marriage exist and if so what is it?

What society, and many Christians, fail to understand is that to be a Christian (at least in the proper Christian tradition) is to be a committed realist. Christians believe that God created humans in His own image and that Christ came to restore us back to His image, which destroys the idea of nominalism right there. The Bible is replete with passages telling Christians to conform to Christ’s image, that Christ is the New Adam, that Christ is the perfect man, and so on. That means that for Christians, Christ is the ideal form of what it is to be human and we are to strive to conform to that ideal. That is realism. Nominalists would say that we determine what it is to be human, which runs contrary to Scripture; this is why Christians are committed realists (or should be).

This also means that Christians believe there is an ideal view of marriage. They get this view from Genesis and dumb it down to “one man, one woman.” And when reading Scripture it’s very apparent that God’s ideal for marriage is for it to be between one man and one woman. At the same time, we see other passages where multiple wives are allowed. Does this mean that the realist is wrong in his view of marriage? Not at all, it simply means that the ideal is not always realized. If the ideal were always realized then there would be no need for Christ. It means that God is willing and able to allow the ideal to be sacrificed to a certain degree in a fallen world in order; thus, war is not God’s ideal, but He allows it and orders it to counteract a fallen world. Polygamy and divorce are not ideal, but allowed within a certain context in a fallen world.

This is also why nominalists have such a hard time interpreting Scripture, they don’t understand the metaphysical commitments that Christians have made. They look at Scripture and say, “But passages concerning homosexuality are all in the Old Testament, which no longer applies!” or “But God allows polygamy, so it’s not ‘one man and one woman’!” Some will point to Romans and say that this is based on pagan practices in homosexuality and not homosexuality itself (which requires one to perform hermeneutical gymnastics to come to this conclusion). The realists look at these passages and say, “But these do not conform to God’s ideal of marriage” or “eating shellfish and wearing clothing of a single fabric has nothing to do with God’s ideal for humanity (as made clear in the New Testament), but how we conduct ourselves in marriage and who we choose to marriage has everything to do with His ideal for humanity.” And thus we see our metaphysical commitments interact.

The shorter version of this is Christians are against homosexual actions not out of ignorance, but out of the view that such actions do not fit within the ideal of marriage. The reason is that Christians also view men and women to have defined roles, or a defined telos to which they are ascribing. This is another issue where nominalists and realists speak past each other, on the role of men and women in society. Nominalists say that gender roles are a societal construct. Realists say that they have everything to do with our construct as humans. Reading Scripture one sees that realism is found even in how gender roles are defined. Thus, if one follows the realism of Scripture, one comes to the conclusion that men have an ideal and women have an ideal, that the two genders are different, yet compliment each other. If this view of realism is correct, then it only follows that marriage should be between one man and one woman because it fits within their respective telos.

Now, none of this speaks to the legal battle except to say this: One’s view of marriage is inherently tied to one’s religious views, which is exactly why the government should be forbidden from issuing marriage licenses. The ideal Christian marriage is one where a man and women come before God and are united as one. This view, however, is not shared by the populace. The government has no right to interject its opinion into the marriage issue. Instead, since taxes and other legal concerns do exist, the government should only issue civil unions and stop there. Those civil unions should exist for anyone regardless of beliefs or gender.

However, what I am saying does speak to the moral issue of homosexuality and how one approaches Scripture. I think it helps if we remove the façade of the debate surrounding homosexuality and reduce it to its metaphysical issues. Thus, while I still oppose marriage amendments that limit the rights of homosexual couples, I still view homosexual actions as going against the telos of humans, or against the ideal for humans.

All that being said, Christians need to understand their own foundations for beliefs as well. The way Christians have approached the homosexual issue has been utterly cruel and uncalled for. The lack of pastors speaking out against bullying, or adding a caveat to it is not only unhelpful, it’s contrary to the teachings of Christ. Viewing homosexual actions as a sin is consistent with Scripture, but treating them as subhuman is not; their sin is no different than a man who looks at pornography (in fact, pornography is in many ways worse) or a heterosexual couple engaged in premarital sex. Ultimately, the human ideal is found in Christ and we must understand that none of us have become as He is.

In the end, both sides needs to understand where each is coming from. We still need to have a discussion over these issues; after all, Christians could be wrong in their interpretation of the Scriptures. Maybe God’s ideal for marriage has nothing to do with gender (though this would mean that God doesn’t have an ideal for the genders either, which would be harder to prove). But comparing those who view homosexuality as a sin to Nazis or calling us ignorant isn’t going to get us to see your side. Likewise, calling people sodomites or treating homosexuality as some atrocity to befall us while ignoring other, bigger issues, isn’t going to convince people of the truth of Scripture. Both sides need to stop acting like children and instead face this issue with mutual dignity and respect.

* If you’re struggling to understand what I mean by “realism” and “nominalism,” you can replace “realism” with “universals” and “nominalism” with “particulars” and then read this post. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ vs the Gospel of Brian McLaren

Recently, I did a post covering the absurdity of labeling ideas “post” when the idea isn’t really “post” anything. Conveniently enough, today I came across a post by Brian McLaren talking about ‘postcolonial theology.’ True to form, just because he labels theology postcolonial doesn’t mean he’s moved past the colonial idea of conquering and subduing what is viewed as inferior or as a blockade to change, rather, he’s simply change the target of colonialism. Sadly, it’s still a racist theology, but the target of the racism has changed.

McLaren’s antipathy towards orthodox Christianity is summarized when he states,

By distinguishing some theology with a modifier – feminist, black, Latin American, eco-, post-colonial, or indigenous, we are playing into the idea that these theologies are special, different – boutique theologies if you will.

Meanwhile, unmodified theology – theology without adjectives – thus retains its privileged position as normative. Unmodified theology is accepted as Christian theology, or orthodox theology, or important, normal, basic, real, historic theology.

But what if we tried to subvert this deception? What if we started calling standard, unmodified theology chauvinist theology, or white theology, or consumerist or colonial or Greco-Roman theology?

The covert assumption behind the modifier post-colonial thus becomes overt, although it is generally more obliquely and politely stated than this:
Standard, normative, historic, so-called orthodox Christian theology has been a theology of empire, a theology of colonialism, a theology that powerful people used as a tool to achieve and defend land theft, exploitation, domination, superiority, and privilege.

If that doesn’t sound disturbing, I’m not writing well or you’re not reading well.

To any casual student of Church history, this is a highly faulty description of orthodox theology and simply shows the nefarious intentions of Brian McLaren and other emergents in subverting the true Gospel of Christ. Notice how Brian makes a blatantly racist statement; he shows he’s comfortable with black theology, latin theology, feminist theology, et al. But normal theology – the theology he thinks is bad – he labels as “white” theology. In other words, “white” is bad and if you’re white, you have a hell of a lot of conforming to do in order to please God, whereas non-whites are already there since whites have persecuted and colonized non-whites. Continue reading

God is known and unknown: Thoughts from St John Chrysostom

I have been reading through St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the mystery of God and have truly found this work to be a treasure. It is my firm belief that all Christians should read this at some point in their lives because it is both deeply theological and deeply devotional.

One point that Chrysostom brings up is that God is not merely incomprehensible, but that God is also unapproachable. He is pulling this distinction from 1 Timothy 6:15-16, which reads:

“…he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,  who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

The commentary that Chrysostom provides on this passage states that, “…Paul did not say, ‘Who is an unapproachable light,’ but, ‘Who dwells in unapproachable light.’ But if the dwelling is unapproachable, much more so is the God who dwells in it. Paul did not say this to limit God to a place, but to prove all the more cogently that God can neither be comprehended nor approached.”

This is sometimes difficult for Christians to grasp. All are guilty of creating an idol of the mind when it comes to God. Often times Christians desire to have a comprehensible God. This is why conservatives act as though they can speak for God on all matters – after all, God is against gays, against abortion, again Democrats, pro-Republican, and watches Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. But the liberals aren’t any better. To them God is all loving, welcomes all religions, hates CEO’s and Republicans, and wears designer jeans. What happens for both sides is they begin to create a God that looks more like them. They conform God to themselves rather than conform themselves to God. Continue reading

I don’t get it

When a man walked into church and killed George Tiller in cold blood, some in the media, most notably on the political left, were quick to discredit all pro-life advocates. Anyone who spoke against abortion and called it murder was immediately branded as co-equal with Tiller’s murderer whether or not the pro-life advocate agreed with the actions taken against Tiller.

We see the same thing occur for Christians as well. Fred Phelps’ actions are reflected upon anyone who disagrees with homosexuality as a lifestyle. The Religious Right is seen as an attempt at a theocratic nation even though most Christians have no desire for theocracy or to associate with the Religious Right when they take political stands. But none of this matters – conservative Christians get branded for certain beliefs.

All of this might be explained as a case of collectively jumping the gun or creating a bias, but then we face the situation in New York with the proposed Islamic Community Center (or Mosque…the developers haven’t been very clear on what it is). We are told by the political left that Islam is a religion of peace and that they have a right to their religion as the next person. Yet, these same people will fight against radical Christians getting protest rights at homosexual rallies or abortion clinics (both are activities I would never engage in, but people do have rights). They will defend a religion that worldwide has caused more deaths than we can possibly imagine. In Pakistan honor killings are the norm. In Saudi Arabia all non-Islamic religions are persecuted out of existence. In all Sharia countries women must look out if they are not Muslim because they can be raped.

In fact, Islam is a very violent religion. Yet, the level of tolerance shown for Islam is baffling. Not that I think Muslims should be rounded up or disallowed their right to worship because many American Muslims are very peaceful, but that’s because they aren’t devout. Devout Muslims, those who adhere to the Qur’an and take the teachings of the Imans seriously, worry me and they should worry you. A quick study of Islam will show that it didn’t spread through good works, but rather through war. People didn’t convert to it because of how compelling it was, but rather their conversion was at the tip of a sword.

Whether or not Muslims have the legal right to build near Ground Zero or whether or not such an idea is wise, the amount of tolerance shown towards Islam as opposed to Christianity boggles my mind. The central focal point of the Christian message, outside of loving God, is to love humans. When we see Christians bashing others and condemning them to Hell (which the Bible does forbid Christians to do when it comes to non-Christians) we can turn to the Scriptures and ask that Christians live like Christ. When Muslims fly planes into buildings, rape non-Muslim women, or murder innocent civilians we can’t turn to the Qur’an. We have nothing to turn to because when they do such things, they are simply following the Qur’an. Yet Islam gets the pass of tolerance while Christianity doesn’t?

Someone please explain this to me.