January 7, 2015

Sophia, Part 2

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 8:16 pm

I had a guitar teacher who told me a story once. I doubt it actually happened, but it is most certainly true. Pop songs always end on the root note, the “home” note of the key the song is played in. Think of the big pounding finish for a live rock anthem — that is the root. My teacher told me he was playing in a blues club and he stopped playing after hitting the fifth (think of that big major chord right before the big pounding finish). He set down his guitar (so he said) and took a sip of beer and proceeded to take a break. The crowd became very agitated until a woman came up to him and screamed “if you don’t play that last note I won’t be able to go to sleep tonight!”

Things unfinished have a way of making us very uncomfortable.

I haven’t blogged for a couple years now. Nothing wrong with that, but I have had this unfinished “Sophia Part 1” post in the back of my mind that whole time. I hit the fifth, but didn’t bring it home.

Time for the big finish of this two-note rock anthem.


Political ideologies are a priori commitments to a set of beliefs that go much beyond the empirical evidence. So communism is defined by a belief in the perfectibility of humans as a collective in the absence of individualism, while libertarians believe in the perfectibility of society as individuals in the absence of a collective. In both cases, empirical facts about the nature of humans as we actually exist in the real world are not enough to overturn the ideology. The ideology comes first, and empirical facts are selected, rationalized and explained away so as to fit into the ideology. So both libertarianism and communism are forced to assume that human nature and the nature of society as a whole will fundamentally change if and only if their political system is implemented, lack of evidence be damned.

The challenge with these political ideologies is that they are impossible to refute. Communism was tried in in the 20th century and was a dismal failure, but communists still exist, people who believe all previous attempts were corrupted by outside forces. Libertarians believe in their ideology in defiance of the fact that it has never existed, ever. No amount of evidence for global warming, the need for effective financial regulations or the value of a minimum wage will convince movement conservatives. The loyalty is to the ideology, and all facts are filtered and distorted to fit within the a priori intellectual commitment.

Of course ideologies aren’t only political. Religion has them too. Hence we have something called the Christian Worldview. Christian worldviews seem to be exclusively the province of conservative evangelicals. Charismatics and mainline Protestants are more concerned with praxis, and Roman Catholics with the authority of the church. But conservative evangelicals seem to have a desire for an all-encompassing worldview that provides a fabric of belief that answers every possible question. A worldview squeezes out the empty spaces where ambiguity might creep in to our religious, and very often, political, beliefs. A Christian worldview provides the same safety and security as a political ideology. Everything makes sense, all questions are resolved, any doubts erased. It becomes the a priori commitment that pre-determines all doctrine and theology.

The only problem is that a Christian worldview leaves no room for Sophia. There is no room for God to act, for the Holy Spirit to enter into the human condition. It explicitly rules this out:

How does a biblical worldview get diluted?

Here is the big problem. Nonbiblical worldview ideas don’t just sit in a book somewhere waiting for people to examine them. They bombard us constantly from television, film, music, newspapers, magazines, books and academia.

Because we live in a selfish, fallen world, these ideas seductively appeal to the desires of our flesh, and we often end up incorporating them into our personal worldview. Sadly, we often do this without even knowing it.

The purpose of a Christian worldview is to insulate the believer from any ideas coming from outside the gatekeepers who have defined and police the borders of what is acceptable belief. And just like a political ideology, it is impossible to refute. The worldview comes first, and all facts and experiences are selectively edited to fit the worldview. Allowing any cracks in the worldview would cause the entire structure to collapse, so all intellectual energy must be expended to preserving the worldview entirely intact.

Christians are to follow Jesus. We don’t need to know where he is leading us. As soon as we presume the destination by becoming committed to a worldview, we are no longer followers, but have become something else.

May 26, 2013

Sophia, Part 1

Filed under: Church,Theology — Bob Gifford @ 8:26 pm

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.”

– Proverbs 8:1-4

Today is Trinity Sunday, which immediately follows Pentecost. These two Sundays force us Lutherans to consider the Holy Spirit for a spell, after which, with a sigh of relief, we place the Spirit back on the shelf for another year*. The lectionary for today included the text above. The Old Testament Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom, is traditionally understood as the second person of the Trinity: Christ, the Logos. But the wisdom texts seem to be more easily understood as the Paraclete, not the Logos. It is the Spirit that calls to us, that is calling to us all to follow God’s divine wisdom. Christ is the savior, but it is the Spirit that sanctifies us. And we cannot be sanctified without divine wisdom.

Another one of the lectionary lessons for today:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

John 16:12-15

Jesus did not tell his followers everything, because they could not “bear them”, but these things are to be revealed by the “Spirit of truth”, which sounds suspiciously like our Sophia from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The message is discomfiting but clear: the New Testament does not contain all of God’s truth, so we must listen for the Spirit of truth to teach us what was kept from the earliest Christians.

What could Jesus’ followers not bear to hear, that may have been revealed to us since through the Holy Spirit?

The Bible was frequently used to defend slavery in the 19th century because it contains no prohibitions against it. The Bible exhorts masters to treat slaves fairly, but in doing so it seems to condone slavery. Still, it was Christian abolitionists claiming that justice can only mean that slaves be free. They did not have the Bible on their side, but they were listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of God. Perhaps a command to abolish slavery was something Jesus’ followers could not bear to hear, but that the Holy Spirit has taught us in God’s own time.

What else? Perhaps the equality of women, including their acceptance as pastors, bishops and political leaders, is another truth the early church could not bear, but is one the Holy Spirit has guided us to. And I believe that the equality of gays, lesbians, and the transgendered is another. The Bible doesn’t support either of these ideas explicitly, and in fact seems to oppose them.** But we are learning from the Holy Spirit, Sophia, the divine wisdom, those things that the earliest followers of Christ could not bear to hear.

Insisting on the completeness of the Bible as a record of God’s instructions for all time not only ignores Jesus’ own words as recorded in the same Bible, but it silences the Holy Spirit. It ends God’s ability to continue guiding us to the divine truth. God is still speaking, and it is up to us to listen.


* Kidding! But all humor has a kernel of truth inside.

** Yes, I know there are plenty of hermeneutical arguments against the anti-gay and anti-women clobber verses, which I ascribe to, but the fact remains there isn’t any explicitly positive instruction regarding women and GLBT equality in the Bible.

May 19, 2012

Polyamory v. Same-Sex Marriage

Filed under: Politics,Theology — Bob Gifford @ 10:19 am

An argument against same-sex marriage is that it is a slippery slope from there to the legalization of polygamy (or more technically, polyamory) and incest. While I am in favor of same-sex marriage, I am not in favor of legalizing polyamory. (We’ll save a discussion of incest for another time.) So am I just imposing my own personal morality on others, and does that make me a theocrat just like the worst of the Christian Reconstructionists?

Any law or legal regime instantiates a moral viewpoint. There is no such thing as a morally neutral legal system. So the question isn’t whether a law imposes morality, but whose morality. Majority rule is supposed to make sure that laws implement an ethic that is widely held, but we put limits on majority rule so that the majority can’t violate the rights of the minority. Minority rights are spelled out in the Bill of Rights, which is where the Establishment Clause comes in. The Establishment Clause requires that the ethics implemented in laws be justified based on universally applicable secular arguments, not sectarian ones.

My argument against the legal recognition of polyamory as marriage while recognizing same-sex marriage is based on secular moral arguments. As a veteran of the same-sex marriage debates, I would define marriage as mutual, chaste and committed (at least in intent if not fully realized), all of which apply to same-sex marriage but not polyamory. It’s not mutual, because there’s usually at least one person in the marriage who would prefer monogamy. It’s not chaste, because the participants have not committed to “forswear all others” since additional spouses can always be added. (Do members of a polyamorous marriage date? I guess they must, otherwise how would new spouses be “courted”.) It’s not committed…how many polyamorous marriages are celebrating their 20th anniversary?

Of course there is also a purely secular argument against the government recognizing any form of marriage, and leaving it as solely a private legal contract. This would allow people to define marriage for themselves depending on the contract that formalizes it. So evangelicals could have “covenant marriage” contracts, but the godless heathens (joking!) could have no-fault divorce written into their contract. I actually would be fine with this. My only issue with this approach is that I don’t think there’s anyway to get from here to there politically, so it’s somewhat moot. So for purely practical reasons I’d go with legalizing same-sex marriage while excluding polyamory.

But the bigger point is that my definition of marriage isn’t arbitrary…it’s based on a secular ethical rationale that would be universally applicable. This is not true when defining marriage as only one man-one woman. It’s impossible to justify this definition without resorting to a very particular theology. The utilitarian arguments fall apart on closer inspection, leaving same-sex opponents to rely on their interpretation of the Bible. Even if this theology is held by a majority of Americans (or North Carolinians — see Amendment One), it is violating the Establishment Clause because it enacts a religious ethic, not a secular one. That’s why the role of the courts is so important with same sex marriage.

March 31, 2012

Theodicy Part 3: The New East Boston

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 3:19 pm

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10

A future eschaton is a comfort in times of earthly hardship, but it is not the answer, or not the entire answer, to the problem of evil in the world. We need the eschaton now, not in some unknowable future. And this leads us to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity: God’s kingdom is both now and not yet. Jesus teaches us to work towards building an eschaton in our own communities here and now. Of course we will always fall short. But this is why God has created a universe that can be so cruel: so that when faced with pain and sadness in others we will bring the eschaton back to the present to the extent we are able. And we do this, as Jesus taught us, through love. It is not through laws, judgment, purity or power that we make the eschaton a present reality, but through love.

If God is a God of love, then a world that includes pain is the best of all possible worlds. But it is more than that. It is a world that tells us that the highest good is not the absence of pain, but the presence of love. It is a world made by a God who loves us enough to ask us to participate in creating the eschaton instead of being passive and naive recipients. A world with pain is not just the best possible world, but a thing of perfection, because it requires us to become more than unthinking children but something far greater: the kingdom of heaven in our midst.

The book of Revelation describes the future eschaton as a New Jerusalem. In her book The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing quotes Beth Utto-Galarneau, a Lutheran seminary student:

“What does our city look like?” I asked this question of our Bible study group one Wednesday evening…I hardly had to wait for a response: stinky, scary; there are gangs…people are crying because they are hungry…there is poverty; people are homeless, it’s unsafe…It seems a far cry from the glorious, radiant New Jerusalem.

“Where is that holy city where God dwells among the people?” I asked. They replied: The promised city must be describing heaven. It’s something we look forward to, in the future, after we die. It’s impossible now they said.

Then I asked the group, “Can we try to imagine what the holy city, what the new East Boston might look like?” The people were quiet…and in the end this is what they said: “We saw the holy city, the new East Boston, coming down out of heaven from God…It has clean streets in which people can walk in safety and with peace at any time. There are no drugs, no fire, no fighting; no one is hungry; everyone has a place to live. People are planting flowers and trees…and God is there.” (pp 166-7)

This is both God’s reason for and answer to the problem of evil.

March 3, 2012

Theodicy Part 2: Eschaton

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 5:57 pm

He will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces

Isaiah 25:8

Theologians prefer the term eschaton to the more common heaven, because its meaning is far more precise and not easily confused with popular but theologically suspect images of clouds, harps and wings. The eschaton is the end of time, the fulfillment of existence. It is not where we go when we die, but where we go when we are resurrected in a new creation, a new heaven and earth, where there will be no tears, no want, no pain or violence, disease or death. Hamlet got it wrong. The eschaton, not death, “’tis the consummation devoutly to be wished” which will “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”.

Unlike our present existence, the eschaton is described in Revelation as a place where God is not hidden from us, where we will abide in God and God in us. The problem of pain will be solved not by a system of overlord super-drones, but by the presence of the actual Overlord among the Overlord’s people.

The eschaton is understood to be eternal. Plenty of fun arguments can be had over whether this means an infinite length of time or a state of timelessness, but either way it will make our 70+ years of mortal existence seem like a blink of an eye.

So is this the answer to the problem of theodicy? That we may have to suffer pain and sadness now, but it will all seem like nothing after a couple of eternities in a new tear-free eschaton? It’s true that this vision of the eschaton is achingly beautiful and a real comfort in times of earthly sadness. It is also an important hope and expectation, or better yet, a divine promise, for Christians.

But if we let this be the final answer to the problem of theodicy, that our present pain doesn’t matter because all will be made well in the eschaton, we will find ourselves following the path of the gnostics. We will want to remove ourselves from this world, which after all is just a temporary illusion, and live solely in anticipation of our life in the only truly real existence, the future eschaton. Instead of allowing our present pain to teach us to love, we will let our present pain cause us to withdraw, to seal ourselves off, to deny our humanity. As Hamlet asked, “who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time…The pangs of despised Love” if this life is just illusion? This gnostic response to the eschaton will not teach us to love, but prevent us from loving.

So while the hope and promise of the eschaton is very important to any Christian answer to the problem of pain, it is only part of the answer. To get to the whole answer, the eschaton must be brought to the present.

November 13, 2011

Theodicy Part 1: Love

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 1:10 pm

I cry to you and you do not answer me
Job 30:20a

I remember a science fiction novel, or maybe it was just a short story, from my youth. It described a planet populated by humans that had never known pain, hunger, grief or loss. They had never experienced sadness. Ever.

This state of affairs was achieved by, as I recall, an automated planetary system put in place by a now-gone super-race that had nurtured the humans’ evolution. This ancient, very advanced, and very benevolent race of overlords had been very protective of their race of humans. They did not want them to suffer, and knowing that they could not protect their humans forever, they created this system to shield them from pain long after the overlords could no longer.

If someone, say, had an accident resulting in a broken bone, drones would swoop in, mend the injury, and remove all memory of the pain from the victim. When someone died, drones came and erased the deceased from the memories of all who had known her. These robots would heal any injury or disease, and then remove it from the communal memory of the entire planet.

Then one day the overlords’ system broke, and for the first time the humans experienced pain. The story examined the shock and evolution of the people as they learned to deal with loss.

But let’s drop the fictional overlords and their protective healing and forgetting system, and just consider what our world would be like if we too never knew pain and sadness. An omnibenevolent and omnipotent God should have been able to create just such a world. Was God unable to create such a perfect world because God is not omnipotent? Or could God have created such a world, but chose not to, because God is not all-good?

What would a pain-free world look like, and who would we be in such a world?

Without sadness, we would not know happiness. Without absence, we could not celebrate presence. Without dissatisfaction, we would have no reason to strive, and hence no ambition, goals or dreams. We could not be afraid, since there would be nothing to fear. Without fear, there would be no bravery. There could be no self-sacrifice, and so no reason for altruism. Our lives would be devoid of pain, but also devoid of emotion.

Most importantly, there would be no empathy. Empathy is our ability to understand another’s emotional state, and to experience it ourselves. Without pain and loss, we would have no reason to share in each other’s emotions.

Returning to the world of my science fiction story, before the overlords’ system broke, no one is sad, but so too no one is joyous, afraid, brave or ambitious. And no one could know love. This is why God created a world in which pain exists.

God has created us in God’s image to love God and to love one another. Love is not love unless it is freely chosen and given. To be freely given, we must also be able to withhold it. We must be free to cause pain if we are free to give love. Love requires empathy, the ability to place ourselves in another’s place. Empathy requires pain, grief and loss both in the other, and in ourselves, for we can’t understand that which we haven’t experienced ourselves. Look at the outpouring of charity in the face of natural disasters around the world. Think of the time and treasure devoted to alleviating hunger and disease around the world. Think of our own lives, and the times we have comforted and ministered to our friends, family and even strangers in times of grief and loss. Could God create a world without earthquakes and tsunamis, hunger and disease, grief and loss? Perhaps. But would such a world know love?

September 10, 2011

Do We Have A Soul?

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 2:26 pm

I am finally getting around to posting a term paper I wrote for my Systematic Theology 3: Ecclesiology and Eschatology class at Fuller last year.

Do we have a soul?

© Bob Gifford.. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Calvinism v. Lutheranism

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 2:15 pm

My thoughts on this excellent article critiquing Calvinism:

To me the most important refutation of Calvinism is this: A god who willfully creates people whom are foreordained to eternal punishment with no chance to avoid it is a monster, a sadist. This is not a god to be worshiped, but a god to be resisted, rebelled against, and overthrown.

God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenificent. A monster god is not omnibenificent. The only way to square this circle is if God, although omnipotent, out of God’s omnibeneficence chooses to give us free will. God willingly limits God’s power out of love. Love does not compel love in return, but allows the freedom for it to be freely returned. This requires the risk that the love will not be returned. Adam (and Eve…let’s not forget Eve) had free will which allowed them to act against God’s will, i.e. sin, in spite of God’s love. The Fall was not that Adam and Eve sinned, it was that as a result they were kicked out of the Garden, i.e. they were separated from God’s presence, which is always the consequence of sin.

This author sounds very Lutheran when he talks about mystery. Luther did not feel the need to resolve paradox, but embraced paradox. So Jesus is human and divine, salvation is through faith but visible in works, we are in the world but not of it, we are simul justus et peccator, faith is a gift but it requires our response. We are to live the paradoxes, not construct a neat logical resolution to them as Calvin did, thereby missing the whole point. Luther was very zen. Calvin not so much.

Note the name of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church – very Lutheran. It’s not a House for Sinners, and also a House for Saints. It’s a House for all who are both sinners and saints, i.e. everyone. One of my kids brought home a t shirt from a youth event with a design that, when read right side up by someone looking at it from the front, said “Sinner”. But when the wearer looked down at the front of the shirt, seeing the design upside down, it said “Saint”. For us Lutherans, paradox is a feature, not a bug of our theology.

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