The Theology of the Devil

“No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everyone wants to be absolutely right himself or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”

— Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

The Lover Is Always Getting Lost

The Intellectual

The intellectual is always showing off;
the love is always getting lost.
The intellectual runs away, afraid of drowning;
the whole business of love is to drown in the sea.
Intellectuals plan their repose;
lovers are ashamed to rest.
The lover is always alone, even surrounded with
people;
like water and oil, he remains apart.
The who goes to the trouble
of giving advice to a lover
gets nothing. He’s mocked by passion.
Love is like musk. It attracts attention.
Love is a tree, and lovers are its shade.

–Rumi

Why You’re Religious Regardless of What Your Bumper Sticker Says

Definition of RELIGIOUS

1
: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
2
: of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances
3
a : scrupulously and conscientiously faithful

It interesting to observe folks in the Christian culture who’ve made it a kind of religious practice to minimize “religion.” The common refrain we hear is that the Gospel is not religion or that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. When I see people make this distinction I want give them a dictionary with the word “religious” bookmarked for their convenience. It’s clear they’re operating with a flawed meaning.

Ken Wilber, in his book The Sociable God, made observation that might be helpful here. He writes,

“It has recently become commonplace to differentiate “religion” and “spirituality,” which is yet another interesting definition. According to this view, “religion” is institutional, rigid, dogmatic, and authoritarian, whereas “spirituality” is alive, vital, experiential and personal. This judgment, common among Baby Boomer writers, may contain a degree of truth, but it often tends to obscure more than illumine, because it soon becomes apparent that “spiritual” here simply means a religious truth or experience that is true for me, but if that spiritual truth gets passed on to another person, and certainly if it gets passed on to another generation, then it must by definition become institutionalized. It soon becomes apparent that individuals who use the distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” are pointing to a spiritual truth for themselves, but they haven’t given much thought what happens if they wanted to pass this spiritual experience or truth on to another human being, because as soon as they do so, their “spirituality” starts to look a lot like “religion.” In other words, in most cases of how these words are used, “spirituality” is simply religion for me; once my spirituality is shared with another, or passed on to another generation, then I am faced with all the same problems of “religion” that I temporarily avoided by introducing the distinction.”

Once we begin to establish a shared journey with others in order to seek out truths about who we are and who God is, we are participants in religious activity. Let’s say you meet every Sunday with some of your friends and family to worship and learn about your God, you are being religious. Let’s say every week or once a quarter you take communion. You nibble on bread and drink grape juice which are symbols of Christ’s body. Sorry to break it to you but that’s a religious practice. If you decide to adorn your back windshield with stickers indicating to your fellow drivers that you’re “saved by grace” and that Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship,” you’re ironically engaging in a religiously motivated activity.

This distinction seems to be motivated by folks who have objections to the worship practices that are different from their own. You might hear from these folks that religion is this while the Gospel is that. As a person who was raised in a Baptist church, I’m well aware of this anxiety. When I visited a Methodist church as a kid, I was totally thrown for a loop. “What’s up with that dude’s robe,” I thought to myself. “This isn’t how WE take communion!” or “What the fuck is Lent?” The worship practices of others can be unsettling for some but that doesn’t mean they should be demonized. The reality is that we are all religious while our methods of worship vary and that’s something we should all be thankful for. The Gospel can’t be reduced to religious activity but we can’t communally reorient ourselves to truth of God’s message without being religious. Thank God we have Baptists and Episcopalians and Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and everyone in between.

Why Mark Driscoll Is So Compelling

Anyone who reads my blog or follows me on twitter would know that I like to poke fun at Mark Driscoll, lead pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle, WA. Before I get into why I think Driscoll is such a compelling figure for many Christians, let me say some good things about him. First, the dude is smart. There’s no question he’s a sharp guy. Secondly, he’s pretty damn funny. He’s certainly got a “dark humor” streak that often times lacks pastoral maturity but that doesn’t mean what he’s saying isn’t funny, even if he’s poking fun at people like me. Third, he’s an effective communicator which isn’t a stretch considering the fact that’s he’s both smart and funny. Ok, with the nice stuff out of the way it’s time to consider the reasons why Driscoll so attractive and repelling to many in the Christian world. Here’s my theory:

I start with the observation that Calvinism is a strange theological system. It may not seem strange to those who consider themselves Calvinists but if you ask Joe Blow on the street what he thinks about the notion of a god who creates billions of human beings knowing beforehand that they will suffer eternal torment in a place called hell because he chose not predestine their good fortune…..you’d probably get a blank stare. Now I get that Calvinism is trying make sense of the problem of evil and the Fall of mankind and so it goes on to frame a way in which it all goes down and I appreciate that, but on the face of it, it seems odd. Fair or unfair, it’s hard for people who don’t find themselves devoted to Calvinism to see how it doesn’t make God into a kind of controlling monster that loves all humanity but not enough to predestine them all for reconciliation.

While I’m sure Calvinists would object to my characterization of their beliefs, I’ve never heard a reply of theirs that made God seem like less of totally soveriegn being who allows a vast majority of his created beings to be tortured endlessly. Because of this peculiar view of the nature of God, I suspect there is a burden a Calvinist might bear. There is an uphill battle for any Calvinist attemtping justify this view of God to the outside world. Instead of carrying the full weight of this understanding of God, at times it might seem easier to skim over these harsh realities about God, just be “missional,” be nice and talk about God’s grace and sovereignty and conveniently leave out the part where God creates souls for the purpose of eternal pain and suffering. When I put myself in their shoes, I can relate to what that burden might feel like.

So imagine you’re a philosophically weary Calvinist, tired of tip-toeing around the one-two punch of God’s ultimate sovereignty and his limited atonement. In walks Mark Driscoll into your life and you see a guy who doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the oddities Calvinism. Not only does he not beat around the bush but he doubles down on every Calvinistic eccentricity other teachers with the same view might conveniently skip over. He’s bold and he’s brazen and he’s exactly what a weary Calvinist might desperately be searching for. He’s a cold drink of water in the desert of philosophical exile. He’s the big brother that comes with you to school to confront the skeptical bully on the theological playground. If I were a Calvinist I’d be eternally grateful for what Driscoll does and I’d be the first in line to dismiss the criticism aimed his way as a result of all the crazy shit he says.

But the reality is I’m not a Calvinist. I simply can’t accept Calvinism as a theological concept because it points to a nature of god that I find unpraiseworthy, but that’s just me. With that said, Driscoll is a compelling figure to me because he’s the perfect embodiment of the pathologies of Calvinism. Certain statements he makes remind me of what some call an “overshare”. Other Calvinists voices might choose to avoid telling people that “God personally and objectively hates you!” even though that’s an accurate depiction of what their theology reflects. But not Driscoll. He doesn’t leave the crazy out. He doubles down with confidence and boldness. These kinds of extreme declarations from Driscoll represent a bubbling up to the surface the pathologies of Calvinism. With his declaration that “God hates some of you,” Driscoll is simultaneously relieving the burden of weary Calvinists and providing shining examples for critics to use as evidence that the underpinnings of Calvinism lead to dangerous and hurtful outcomes.

When Liberals Want to Burn the Forest Down and Conservatives Become Tree-Huggers

It’s been interesting to see the various reactions to the news that Rob Bell is leaving Mars Hill. The disclaimer here is that Rob is a friend and I’m very excited for him but this post isn’t about him but about the response his departure has generated. One of the more notorious responses was from Rick Warren who tweeted this:

Speaking tours feed the ego=All applause&no responsibility.It’s an unreal world. A church gives accountability& validity

Warren also tweeted that pastors leaving their church will “always” have “less impact” after leaving.

In addition to Warren there have been plenty of other responses but Mark Driscoll’s letter to his church, obviously written in the shadow of Bell’s departure, is most interesting, to put it kindly. In the letter he assures his church that he loves his wife and kids, that he and his wife are “good friends” and that the Driscoll home is a “great place to be.” He also assures the church that Grace, Mark’s wife, doesn’t worship him (despite the obvious temptation). He ends the letter by assuring the church he’s not going anywhere:

“Pencil me in for at least a few more decades. I do a lot of things, but the one thing I love the most after being a Christian, husband, and father is being a pastor at Mars Hill.”

In a nutshell, more conservative folks seem to be more skeptical when a successful, well-known pastor decided to leave their churches behind. To Driscoll’s credit, while he hasn’t to my knowledge directly commented on Bell’s departure, he was critical Francis Chan’s decision to leave his church. Just by browsing the Twitter timeline on Rob Bell, you see a pretty consistent stream of conservative skeptics while more moderate to liberal commenters have been intrigued, supportive or neutral.
Nowhere have I seen any prominent liberal voice object to Bell moving on. (If so please point me to it)

The news about Bell has brought to the surface some underlying tendencies of both liberals and conservatives when it comes to relating to the American Christian Church. As I get into this, I’ll be generalizing quite a bit. The differences between liberals and conservatives are quite nuanced and complex and I don’t mean to oversimplify the reality. All I mean to do is highlight tendencies so I think generalizing here can be helpful.

Conservatives main tendency is to protect the current state of the Church. Despite its many imperfections, Conservatives generally see the Church as it is worth protecting and preserving while ushering in incremental changes along the way. Conservatives, for the most part, want to conserve the traditions and structures of the church. Liberals, on the other hand, generally don’t share that same tendency to protect the current state of the Church. Liberals yearn for a kind of resetting of the church, from the ground up without the obstacles that the tradition brings. The default mode of liberals is to operate with a healthy skepticism of the Church as well as the conventional wisdom that directs the current trends of American Christianity. To use a forestry metaphor, conservatives prefer to use controlled burns and firebreaks to tend to the health of the forest. For them the forest isn’t in perfect shape so just a little maintenance is needed. On the other hand, liberals wouldn’t mind the prospect of an all out forest fire to clear the way for new trees to eventually come back even stronger, which is often the case. For them, the forest is beyond mere maintenance. The major difference is between how both groups evaluate the health of the Church and that greatly impacts their involvement in the church now and their vision for the future. The conservative response to the departure of a well-known Christian leader is generally summed up by saying, “if you leave the church, you are minimizing your influence to communicate the love of God to the world.” But the liberal response would be summed up by saying, “the church in its current state is doing such a poor job of communicating the love of God to the world that we must venture outside the church walls, free from the obstacles the church has constructed.”

In the case of Warren critiquing Bell’s departure, this also highlights a significant difference in audience. Warren assumes Bell’s audience and his audience are made up of generally the same group of people; church-going Christians. While Bell doesn’t exclude church-going christians from his audience, significant elements of his audience are found beyond the walls of the Christian world. That’s largely because Bell’s message resonates with folks outside the church. On the other hand, very few folks outside the Christian culture have much interest at all in what Warren or other more insular, conservative Christian voices are saying. For Warren the Church is the primary base of operation and without the Church a pastor loses his influence and in his case he’s absolutely right. If Warren were to leave the Church to broaden his audience into the secular world, he’d have no takers. The message he offers would sink like a boulder in the ocean. But what Warren and other conservative critics don’t see is that that’s not the case with every Christian voice.

Why I Call Myself “Liberal” and not “Progressive”

My friend Tony Jones and some other folks over at Pathos are working out the implications of “Progressive Christianity” and what it means in today’s religious landscape. They’re also talking about the differences between labels like “progressive” as opposed to “liberal” and why certain labels are better than others. I’m not really all that bothered by the use of either word (progressive/liberal) but I do tend to prefer “liberal” to describe myself in the religious and political landscape.

The main reason is that I find the label “progressive” too dismissive of those who would not call themselves “progressives” in a religious or political sense. It implies that one way of thinking or believing is progressing while others ways are not. I find a lot that I’m not a fan of in conservative, traditional Christianity but one thing I don’t find is absolutely no one progressing, growing, moving forward within their conservative world-view. Sure, there are those that regress or remain static in their ways, but that’s certainly not as universal a condition as the word “progressive” would imply.

The main difference between liberal/progressives and conservative/traditionalists is the way each group approaches boundaries or limits. Traditionalists will typically tend to respect limits and boundaries while liberals will typically question or challenge them. If I call myself a “liberal,” I’m identifying the nature of my relationship to the conventional boundaries with which we all interact. If I say I’m not bound by what Paul writes in scripture about homosexuality or the role of women, then I’ve freed myself, liberated myself from what many believe is a healthy limit that the Bible sets. Conservatives fear that we all ultimately lose something when we cross these limits. Liberals fear that something is lost if these limits are not, at the very least, questioned and challenged. This doesn’t mean that conservatives cannot progress within their world-view. It just means that limits are typically respected and revered because their perception of tradition brings with it great authority.

I realize conservatives will say that, within their world-view, they are indeed “liberated” and I’m not trying to imply otherwise. It’s certainly not up to me to determine whether or not a person feels free. But if these labels are used to indicate our relationship to boundaries, then I feel like both descriptors, “liberal” and “conservative,” can be agreeable for both groups.

Evangelizing the Elect

Check out this video (video #2) on evangelism and election on James Macdonald’s blog featuring Mark Driscoll and Greg Laurie –> http://jamesmacdonald.com/blog/?p=6449

I’ve often been perplexed by the notion that the elect need to be evangelized. After all, if God elects them for salvation of some sort, then why do they need to be made aware of that election? Why would God elect a person but not to the extent that the person understands what God has done? It seems that this position is a way to reconcile what some understand the Bible has to say about election and evangelism. But this leads me to believe that we’ve either misunderstood what the Bible means regarding election or the Biblical authors weren’t on the same page, leaving us with this apparent contradiction. God is sovereign and does all the saving but we need to go out and preach the Gospel because, for some reason, God asks us for our help, even though he doesn’t really need our help…….

Contradictions aren’t bad. The Bible leaves us with all kinds of contradictions and paradoxes that we must wrestle with. I don’t think that discredits the power of the scriptures in any way. If anything, it adds to the power of the scripture. But contradictions and paradoxes aren’t necessarily buzzwords with sort of folks that believe they need to evangelize the elect while the non-elected folks are SOL.

So this clip that I linked to above is really fascinating to me. Here is a grown man devoting his life to a calling that isn’t really necessary when considering the logic of his own theology. Like he said, it’s a “take-your-son-to-work” day but for his whole adult life. This might be a nice way to think about it and I’m sure it makes sense to Pastor Mark but theologically speaking, it’s not really consistent with what he believes. God is either sovereign or he’s not. And if God is sovereign then why would he require us to a calling that doesn’t actually make sense in light of his sovereignty? And it seems that human beings typically do a bad job of representing God’s truth to those around us in the same way that a child disrupts the task at hand when taken to work by mom or dad. So maybe at some point those who believe God is sovereign and that he elects a limited amount of people should just sit back and let God do the work. Otherwise your actions don’t seem follow the logical conclusions of your beliefs and ultimately render them untrustworthy.

Freedom and Stuff Part 2

When we come to the realization that the conclusions we come to aren’t just purely objective in nature, it sets up a lot of really great possibilities. I would say that the most positive realization comes with knowing that we are not our conclusions. While I am a Christian and have certain positions regarding Christianity, that doesn’t define who I am as a human being. The essence of who I am isn’t comprised of my theological positions, political theories or the kind of clothes I wear or the car I drive, etc. The essence of who I am is comprised only of the being that God has created.

Acknowledging that our theological conclusions aren’t a product of who we fundamentally are is critical to developing the kind of empathy needed to move forward in a world where our various theologies are endlessly clashing.

It’s so much easier to demonize your theological other when you operate under the false assumption that your theological conclusion was arrived through an objective process. Evidence for this is so readily available, I say farewell to keeping up. When human beings are convinced that what we believe is simply a matter of believing what is true, disregarding the complicated matrix of consequences in which we develop our ideas, it is the first step in drawing the line between those who are right and those who are wrong.

But if we are able to disassociate the ideas we have from who we are at our core, this is the most critical step in developing a bond between those who might be our theological other. By coming to the realization that we develop our ideas while being influenced by our life experiences, we can see that this is the case with others as well. Rational arguments can be made but they are hardly any match for the power of life experiences and how those experiences shape a human being.

Freedom and Stuff, Part 1

As westerners, especially as Americans, we listen to this song as it the DJ plays it at our friends 90s party and nod our heads. We generally believe that we are free to do whatever we want, any old time with the exception that whatever we choose to do doesn’t infringe on the freedoms of anyone else. We’re free to choose our occupation, our hobbies, our sports teams, the music we listen to, the political candidates we support, etc.. I woke up today in Boise, Idaho and decided that I wanted to eat a bagel for breakfast. I left my hotel, walked a few blocks and proceeded to enjoy a very tasty everything bagel. The freedom to choose our preferences is so deeply ingrained into our society that it is simply unfathomable for us to see it any other way. It’s second nature.

This sense of freedom also bleeds into our religious preferences. The predominant religion in America is Christianity and the predominant form of Christianity in America is predicated on “right belief”. Basically, we get to God by arranging our thoughts about God in just the right way. If someone comes along, say a guy named “Rob,” and suggests that right belief might not be all it’s cracked up to be, people get really upset.

The reason I bring all this up is that underpinning this sense of right belief is the deeply held assumption embedded in our freedom-loving phsyces is that all human beings are completely free to choose what they want to believe. If you are a Christian it is because you objectively chose Christianity over all other religious options available to you. Or if you are a Muslim, it is simply because you’ve chosen to be one.

Absent from this assumption are the other factors that help determine our conclusions such as place of birth, cultural influences, familial influences, economic circumstances, and life experience just to name a few. All of these factors play very important, determinative roles in our decision making. To ignore these factors is to grossly oversimplify and misunderstand how we as human beings come to the conclusions we do.

I’m not saying that we don’t have some amount of freedom to make our choices, but these other, often ignored factors provide a framework that essentially limits or inhibits the kinds of choices we make.

Someone once asked me in an email interview why I was a Christian. I sat a thought about it for a while, trying to be as honest as I could with myself why I believe what I believe and the only really honest answer I could give was because my parents raised me to be a Christian. And it’s likely that I was raised to be a Christian because my grandfather was a Baptist minister and he raised my father to be a Christian. And the fact I was born in America where Christianity is the predominant religion didn’t hurt either. If I had been born in Japan or Saudi Arabia or Jakarta, chances are I would not be a Christian. If I had ardent atheist parents who raised me in a community of atheists where I had a bunch of atheist friends, chances are I’d be an atheist.

To take this a little bit further, a very important reason why I’ve reassessed my faith as a Christian in so many ways has been my life experience directly related to playing in a band. Traveling all over the world, making friends with and working with people who are not Christians. Making friends with atheists, feminists, homosexuals and learning about who they are and listening to their stories has greatly shaped my thinking and the conclusion I’ve come to.

Some might point out that this discredits my convictions. That I simply blow where the cultural winds take me. But the reality is that we are all blowing in the wind and it’s much nicer to be aware of that fact than to be blind to it.