Apologetics v. the Masters of Suspicion.

I’ve written here before about apologetics. I’ve said more or less the same thing in surveys and classes for quite a while. In summary, while I was really interested in the subject for a while, after having the arguments and defending the positions, I realized that it just didn’t matter – at least, not to most people who actually walk away from churches. People’s dissatisfaction with religion generally stems – at least primarily – not from a belief that the universe can be explained without God (a.k.a. the evil college professor), but from their experience of interacting with people who call themselves Christians, who in their minds generally come across as self-centered, self-righteous, and in many cases, just plain mean.

With that being said, one of the many books on my plate over the past few months is Richard Beck’s recent book “The Authenticity of Faith“. In the prelude to the book, Beck makes what I consider to be a particularly insightful argument regarding why, to an increasing number of people, Apologists are answering the wrong question.

Beck begins by framing the status quo:

[W]hat we might call Classical Christian apologetics has tended to focus upon an epistemological formulation of the question “Why do people believe in God?” The classical, epistemological formulation asked the following of religious believers: “What are your reasons for believing in God?” This is an issue about evidence and rational justification. The question “Why do you believe in God?” boiled down, in classical apologetics, to “Do you have good reasons for believing in God? And if so, what are those reasons?”

So far, nothing terribly surprising. The task of apologetics is to give believers “good” reasons to believe – whatever that might mean. As Beck points out, these are epistemological reasons to believe – meaning apologists tend to be working on trying to justify religious beliefs as rational – why it’s rational to believe in God, why Scripture can be trusted, why the world was created in 4,004 B.C., etc. Give our kids good, justifiable reasons to believe that these things are true, and they won’t walk away. Mission accomplished.

Or is it?

The french philosopher and theologian Paul Ricœur famously categorized Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as “masters of suspicion” in his book Freud and Philosophy. A key theme for each of these thinkers can loosely be termed “false consciousness” – the idea that while our consciousness is telling us one thing about the world or ourselves or reality, in reality something else is happening on the level of society, or the unconscious – often something we are not even aware of.

So for Marx, our consciousness is shaped by social, political and economic history in contexts of domination. Religion, then, expresses false consciousness because it masks and mystifies the true origins of our suffering and domination with categories like “sin” or “salvation”. It focuses us toward the otherworldly, rather than allowing us to take seriously the problems we encounter in this world.

So what exactly does this have to do with apologetics? Beck, again:

Consider Marx’s famous formulation that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” How is Marx’s attack on faith any different from the epistemological questions found in classical apologetics? To start, note that Marx is not asking for religious believers to give an account. Marx is, rather, giving an account of religious believers. Marx is shifting away from the reasons for belief and focusing a spotlight upon the functions of religious belief: in this case, the sociological functions of religion (i.e., faith functions to keep the working class from seeking revolutionary change). This shift, from reasons to functions, is a radical and destabilizing change in the history of Christian apologetics. It has, effectively, changed the subject.

In classical apologetics, Christians might have been asked to justify their beliefs that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead. What justifies that belief? By contrast, in the wake of thinkers such as Freud, the question morphs and becomes something different, something like this: Why would someone be attracted to the idea of life after death? That is a different kind of question, a question that moves past the propositional contents of faith and begins to investigate the underlying, often subterranean, motivations behind belief formation itself. These questions are highly destabilizing because few of us are able to plumb the depths of our unconscious motivations. Is it possible that I believe in the Resurrection because I am motivated by a deep and unconscious fear of death? Honest people admit that this may be a very real possibility. If so, hasn’t my faith been rendered to be an illusion, a psychological system that helps me cope with an unsettling reality? Suddenly we are no longer talking about evidence, argument, and reasonableness. We are talking about psychological motivations. And if these motivations are called into question (plausibly so, for who does not want to live forever?), how are we to respond?

And here, really is the issue. Even if we are to give our kids the best apologetic training possible, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are trying to answer questions that fewer people are asking. As Beck notes later in the prelude, in this realm of discussion, the specific content of faith is generally not what must be defended, and can largely be ignored as being shaped by larger psychological and sociohistorical factors. Consider the following statement: “You say you believe in heaven because it is recorded in scripture, but the real reason you believe in heaven is because you are afraid of dying.” This approach does not much care whether the belief is true per se (i.e. does heaven exist?) as much as the way in which the belief is functioning – in this case, preventing anxiety.

If there is to be any value in teaching our children apologetics, surely it is to be found in preparing them to answer actual questions they may face. Increasingly, frontal attacks on traditional apologetic issues are either “easily refuted” through apologetic templates (though the matter clearly remains much more grey, for those who are actually thoughtful), or simply ignored (“if the Bible says the world was created in seven days, I believe it”). Questions of suspicion, on the other hand, are much more difficult to deal with.


What the Bible says about, and what the Bible says.

One way Christians interact with the text of the Bible is to assume that it is a sort of “instruction manual for life” – a book that contains all the answers to life’s pressing questions. As a result, if you want to know what your view should be on, say, the Harry Potter series of books, you can search the words of Scripture, find the “data” that speaks to your particular question, and get an answer, usually with a fairly nice bow on top.

In this context, one common mode of studying Scripture is to look for “what the Bible says about ______.” It’s not hard to find this in some form at most churches. “We’re doing a series on servanthood – come learn what the Bible says about being a servant.” “For the next five weeks, we’ll be talking about Biblical principles for money management.” “We’ll be starting a series next week on how you can have a stronger marriage based on passages in the Psalms.” “Our class this semester will be focused on dealing with depression from a Biblical perspective.” And so on.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that, on two levels, this mode of approaching the text often results in selection bias. Allow me to explain.

In statistics, selection bias occurs when you, for a variety of possible reasons, don’t take the entire population into account. One of the most obvious examples is sampling bias, where systematic errors are introduced by having a non-random sample. One often cited example are voting and issue polls which are conducted by telephone – such a sample excludes all people who don’t own phones, and if you don’t take this into account, you can end up drawing incorrect conclusions based on the sample data you collect. A more recent example involves the transition of television viewing habits among American households. Ten years ago, before most people had DVRs, television ratings were conducted exclusively based on what households watched live. As DVRs became more popular, more households began to faithfully follow shows, but tended to watch them at times that fit better into their schedule. Ditto with watching shows on the internet. Studios are still struggling with how to determine the popularity and revenue streams for shows when the ratings information they receive increasingly fails to reflect actual viewership. In short, selection bias often leads you to the wrong conclusion because you assume one thing about what you’re looking at (namely, that your sample reflects the actual population), while in reality, you have, generally unintentionally, excluded certain members of the population, causing the sample you’ve selected to not really be representative of the population as a whole. So what does this have to do with Scripture?

When we start with the question “What does the Bible say about _________?”, we commit our first selection bias by pre-selecting only the topics that we are interested in. It’s been a while, I suspect, since a church has done a seven week series on “what the Bible says about the virtue of poverty, and why we should sell everything, and give it to the poor”. Rather, the topics that are usually selected for classes and sermons generally center around what is “practical”, or “relevant to our daily lives”, or “problems that are facing Christians today.” The trouble with this is that much of scripture doesn’t fall into these nice, simple packages. It’s hard to take away a lot of nice, happy, “practical” images from the book of Obadiah, for example. And so, for the most part, difficult passages, passages that don’t seem to have a lot of immediate practical value, passages that are particularly challenging or difficult to read – in short anything that doesn’t fall into the category of something we find relevant is simply ignored. The ultimate effect is that Scripture isn’t allowed to say anything we might want to hear, since we are only looking into topics about which we do want to hear.

Furthermore, once we’ve pre-selected our topics and weeded out anything potentially challenging or confronting, we then get to engage in a second step which encourages additional selection bias: namely we decide which passages “apply” to the topic, and which ones don’t. This can be particularly problematic, even given our ability to do rapid word searches on the text, because searching for words and searching for ideas or images is a completely different thing. Consider the concept of “atonement” – a word that appears in most English translations of the New Testament less than a dozen times, yet is woven into the fabric of the text through many overlapping, and sometimes conflicting metaphors and images. Unless one is particularly widely versed in the breadth of Scripture, it is entirely possible to leave out verses which are absolutely applicable simply because one was unaware of them, and they didn’t turn up in a simple search. The problem is exacerbated by the reality that studying like this long term tends to reinforce certain passages to the exclusion of others – in other words, we tend to gravitate to the same passages, which causes us to forget or ignore others.

That’s not to say that we won’t commit selection bias if we read exegetically through books of Scripture, or that there aren’t potential problems with this approach. But it does mean that when we come to Scripture with questions of the form, “What does the Bible say about _____?”, we must be very careful. When we speak into Scripture and expect it to respond directly to our questions, we should not be surprised if the answers we hear back are our own.

“Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 ‘Practical’ Things You Don’t Have to Do”

I’ve been a fan of Phillip Cary for a few years now, so when I learned he’d written a more “popular” book aimed at dispelling myths of “practical” Evangelical theology… well, it only took me about 5 seconds to buy it.

For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Cary is a professor of philosophy at Eastern University, a small religious liberal arts school home to such notable names as Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne. Cary wrote the book in response to questions his students were asking which, by his own admission, made no sense to him. Questions like, “How do I know what God’s will is for my life”, and, “How do I know that the voice I hear in my heart is God’s voice?”

Cary’s basic premise is this: “new evangelical theology” (as he calls it) masquerades as a set of “practical” suggestions, but in the end causes more harm than good. “They’re ideas that promise practical transformation, but in real life they mainly have the effect of making people anxious – not to mention encouraging self-deception, undermining their sense of moral responsibility, and weakening their faith in Christ.”

As a student of the history of Christian theology, Cary is uniquely positioned to critique what he rightly suggests are a variety of theological positions that didn’t exist only a couple of generations ago, but have spread like wildfire through the church. In his words, this “new evangelical theology” “is essentially a set of interconnected techniques or ritual practices for making god real in your life, establishing a relationship with God, and so on – as if all that kind of thing really depended on you. The techniques all have the characteristic that they turn you away from external things like the word of God, Christ in the flesh, and the life of the church, in order to seek god in your heart, your life, and your experience. Underneath a lot of talk about being personal with God, it’s a spirituality that actually leaves you alone with yourself.”

Cary notes that this is, “what you might call a ‘working theology,’ which is not an academic theory but a basis for preaching and discipleship, prayer and evangelism and outreach. It’s a theology that tells people how to live. It gives people practical ideas and techniques they’re supposed to use to be more spiritual.” Cary:

The techniques are named using familiar phrases that are now cliches in American evangelicalism: giving God control, finding God’s will, hearing God speak, letting God work, and so on. If you’re like my students, you’re already anxious about whether you’re doing this stuff right. And if that’s so, I figure you’ll feel even more anxious, not to mention guilty, when you think of not doing this stuff at all. But that’s what I’m going to invite you to think about in this book. What I’m telling you is what I tell my students: you don’t have to do this stuff. You might think: but wait a minute, isn’t this how you have a relationship with God? Don’t these phrases tell us something important about how to be Christian? And my answer is: not in the Bible they don’t. But it is true that in American evangelical churches today, this is what most people mean when they talk about having a relationship with God or being a Spirit-filled Christian.

The solution? For Cary, at the beginning, making sure people recognize that they have permission not to believe it. As he rightly notes, “[Life] is hard enough already without trying to apply these bad ideas to [your life].” When we are freed from this, life can become “about seeing the invitations in God’s word for what they are, so that our Christian life may be lived in cheerful obedience rather than in anxious efforts to get it right.”

So why have these “practical” techniques caught on, such that they are almost universal in churches today? Cary again:

Quite simply: they work. That doesn’t mean they make you holy or good Christians, but that when leaders use them and get others to use them, churches grow in numbers and retain their membership.

The new evangelical theology is essentially a set of practical ideas or techniques for living the Christian life. They “work,” but in a peculiar and not very Christian way. They make you anxious when you don’t use them, which makes you use them. That’s their real success: they reproduce themselves like a virus, until everybody has the virus – until everybody is using the techniques, saying the same things, participating in the same programs.

So what are these “practical” things? Cary’s chapter titles:

  1. Why you don’t have to hear God’s voice in your heart, or, how God really speaks today.
  2. Why you don’t have to believe your intuitions are the Holy Spirit, or, how the Spirit shapes our hearts.
  3. Why you don’t have to “let God take control”, or, how obedience is for responsible adults.
  4. Why you don’t have to “find God’s will for your life”, or, how faith seeks wisdom.
  5. Why you don’t have to be sure you have the right motivations, or, how love seeks the good.
  6. Why you don’t have to worry about splitting the head from the heart, or, how thinking welcomes feeling.
  7. Why you don’t have to keep getting transformed all the time, or, how virtues make a lasting change in us.
  8. Why you don’t always have to experience joy, or, how God vindicates the afflicted.
  9. Why “applying it to your life” is boring, or, how the Gospel is beautiful.
  10. Why basing faith on experience leads to a post-Christian future, or, how Christian faith needs Christian teaching.

The problem with these “practical” things, Cary notes, is that they are all about you. They are essentially techniques to keep you off balance, off center, thinking about yourself (or not thinking at all), instead of recognizing the beauty of the Good News – the Gospel – which is, after all primarily about Christ. “Listening to God’s voice in your heart” really amounts to listening to your own voice, “letting God take control” is really a way of absolving yourself of moral responsibility, “finding God’s will for your life” is trying to take a shortcut to real wisdom and discernment, and “applying it to your life” is a way of making faith about what you can do instead of what God has already done.

The end result? Cary:

The new evangelical theology promises you great experiences, but what it delivers is great anxiety. It makes your Christian life all about you and your experiences, which is not nearly so much fun as it pretends to be. The result is like being trapped in a bad party where everybody acts like they’re enjoying themselves, because they’re convinced that’s how they’re supposed to feel and they don’t want to let on that there’s something secretly wrong with them.

By undermining your sense of the reality of God – the reality of someone who exists outside of you – the new evangelical theology undermines your faith in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of learning what God says about himself in his word, you have to dance with shadows in your own heart and figure out which of them to call God. And when your experience with the new shadows disappoints you, you pretty much have to declare yourself disappointed with God. The new evangelical theology thus sets you up for a kind of consumer disappointment, when the elixir it’s selling turns out not to have the magical properties it claims. It doesn’t make your life turn out the way you want and it won’t make you immune from suffering and sadness. That’s not what the man on the cross promised.

Cary closes his book with a metaphor that he uses several times – the singing of old familiar Christmas carols, and the effect they have on our hearts. Preaching and hearing the Gospel, he suggests, is really like that:

And finally, the gospel is good for our spiritual lives. It may sound obvious when it’s put that way, but we often deny it in practice, thinking that improvement in our spiritual lives is ultimately up to us. The idea that we are supposed to “let God” do it is just one more way of making it ultimately up to us. The Gospel includes the good news that God has already done what needs to be done to transform our lives. To preach the gospel is to invite people to believe this startling truth, so that it might get to work in their hearts.

If you’re not sure what this kind of preaching sounds like, just call to mind a Christmas carol that gives you comfort and joy because of what it tells you about Christ, the newborn king. That’s what the gospel sounds like. We sing, “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.” This is not a set of instructions telling us how to feel or what to do to get to Bethlehem, but a word that gives us what it’s talking about – faith and joy and Christ himself. That’s what the gospel does: it tells Christ’s story in order to give him to all who believe. So words like “come ye to Bethlehem” bring us to Jesus, the baby lying in the manger who is the only begotten Son of God. When we believe the glad tidings these words have to give us, we receive this baby into our hearts. For what is accomplished by faith in the Gospel is not our practical activity but the work of the Spirit, who through the word of God gives us, once again, nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Rob Bell’s Love Wins, or possibly Karl Barth for the masses (Part 1)

In the last post, I mentioned that, in many ways, Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins is, in some sense, a repainting of major elements of Karl Barth’s theology for a much wider and more accessible audience. As a recap, Barth essentially overturned the Augustinian and Calvinist doctrines of Election by applying the doctrine not primarily to humanity as a whole, but specifically to Jesus Christ. God Elects Jesus Christ, saying both “No” and “Yes”, and through Jesus extending that “No” and “Yes” to all of humanity. Further, I claimed that Barth essentially “calls the bluff” of the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement by saying, “Are you so sure Christ doesn’t save everyone? What if he did succeed in saving everybody? Would that be such a bad thing?”

We don’t have to get farther than the first page to see Bell also questioning this “bluff”:

Ghandi’s in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting us know?

Much of the first chapter of the book, in fact, is Bell, in his typically artistic style, showing just how much the Calvinist doctrine of Election really does look like Bad News, at least for the vast majority of people who’ve ever lived. Bell covers such a wide range of objections to the typical notion that “a few people go to heaven while the majority of ‘unsaved’ go to hell” that it’s not possible to cover them all without rewriting his chapter. A few of the highlights he mentions, though:

  • “[W]henever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed – and everybody else isn’t – why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in’? Have you ever heard people make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not part of that group?”
  • If there is such a thing as an “age of accountability”, and we could guarantee everyone ended up in heaven by prematurely terminating every life before, say, the age of 12, wouldn’t that be the best thing to do? After all, why run the risk?
  • If the message of the Gospel is primarily about going somewhere else (heaven) after you die, then it doesn’t really seem to have anything to say about this present life. “Is that the best God can do?”
  • If justification is all that matters, Christian’s “wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because [they] would believe [they] were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus.
  • The “Jesus” that most people encounter may not be a terribly accurate picture – for instance the Christian caricatures that are portrayed in the media depicting Jesus as “antiscience, antigay, standing out on the sidewalk with his bullhorn, telling people that they’re going to burn forever”. In Bell’s words, “Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the god they don’t believe in, we quickly discover that I don’t believe in that god either.”
  • Looking back at my previous post, “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire?” Bell: “So is it not only that a person has to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do – but also that someone else has to act, teach, travel, organize, fund-raise, and build so that the person can know what to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do?
  • We talk a lot about a “personal relationship” with Jesus. However, as Bell points out, the phrase “personal relationship” is found literally nowhere in the Bible.

Summing up part of his first chapter, Bell writes:

If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs?

And aren’t verbs actions?

Accepting, confessing, believing – those are things we do.

Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?

How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

In this passage, and many others, Bell further echoes a major tenet of Barth’s theology: that theology fundamentally begins with God, not with humanity. Our discussions about Heaven and Hell almost always revolve around us, which seems to sort of miss the point..

Bell spends an entire chapter (Chapter 4) revolving around the question “Does God get what God wants?”. As a basis for this question, Bell in effect uses an old objection from theodicy: if God is all powerful, and God really does want all people to be saved, “Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” As I’ve already noted, Bell is going to suggest, along with Barth, the possibility that God does not fail in the end, but doesn’t necessarily get what he wants either. Because this is, in my opinion, the fulcrum of the entire book, I want to spend the rest of this post talking about how I read Bell’s argument progressing, complete with multiple quotes.

Bell begins by painting two rival views around this problem. The first view is that, in effect, for love to be authentic, there must exist the possibility that it is rejected. Because we only have one life to live, we have a choice to make whether to accept or reject God’s love, and then the game is up. If God, at any point co-opts our decision, then he has fundamentally violated the nature of what love even is. On the other hand, theologians in times past (including Martin Luther himself) have questioned whether there is a possibility that people could turn to God after death. If we get another chance after we die, why not limit it to a single chance – why not let it run on as long as it takes in a sort of Christian re-incarnation type of way (though not necessarily on this earth)? The idea here is that eventually, the love of God would “melt every hard heart” and even the “vilest offenders” would at last turn to God. Bell doesn’t really like either of these positions at face value. But before he goes further, he makes two observations that I think are critical in the larger picture of what is going on with this book. Bear with my extended quote:

First, an obvious but unfortunately much needed observation: People have answered these questions about who goes where, when, why, and how in a number of different ways. Or, to be more specific, serious, orthodox followers of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways. Or, to say it another way, however you answer these questions, there’s a good chance you can find a Christian or group of Christians somewhere who would answer in a similar way.

It is, after all, a wide stream we’re swimming in.

Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or another, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it… forever.

Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.

Second, it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.

In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. It is a bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes.

Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it. We can be honest about the warped nature of the  human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.

Two comments on Bell’s observations. First, I think he is spot on with his commentary on the “bundling” that often occurs in post-Reformation Christianity. Specifically, as Christianity has become more “belief centric”, the specific nature and correctness of these beliefs has become increasingly important. After all, believing the wrong things may condemn you to hell. Best, then, to make sure you believe correctly, which for many has involved bundling all sorts of things into what it means to “be a Christian”. As I’ve posted many times, I do believe there are things which are properly “Orthodox”, but on this one I actually line up on Bell’s side – this is something we can have honest disagreements about (and some of us can be wrong about) without stepping over boundaries. This is not to say those beliefs don’t have consequences – Bell himself is adamant about this – but rather to say we can honestly disagree on this point and still call ourselves Christians. Obviously from the reaction to this book, that is not a universal opinion.

Second, Bell very effectively calls us to think about what the “best of all possible worlds” would be, and basically asks, “Do you think God can do that?” Whether or not we think God will do that is beside the point in this discussion – what is at issue is what we hope he will do. Like Abraham pleading on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Bell reminds us that righteous people hope for the best outcome – the story where everyone does get saved, regardless of what the actual, eventual outcome will be. And importantly, they don’t do this in an insincere way, saying, “Oh, of course it would be great if that happened, but obviously it isn’t going to.” Abraham takes up the case of the wicked before God, trying in essence to bargain with him – a notion that seems foreign to the way most Christian communities relate to the “lost”.

Bell spends a few pages painting some beautiful images of “a new heaven and a new earth”, “a city whose gates are never shut”, and a time when God announces “I am making everything new.” I won’t attempt a stick figure drawing of them – you really need to read them for yourself. However, Bell returns to the original question (“Does God get what God wants?”) in what is one of the more poignant passages in the book. But before that he makes a four line statement we all would do well to remember:

Will everybody be saved,
or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?

Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.

This simple statement is the largest piece missing in most reviews of the book, arguments against the book, and defenses of the book. The acknowledgement that these tensions exist, that we cannot resolve them, and that we must respect them is critical for this discussion to turn out in any sort of positive way.

I think it seems fitting to end this post with the ending to Chapter 4, because it ties so many themes together, and succeeds by changing the question altogether:

[T]here’s a better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future, which no one has been to and then returned with hard, empirical evidence, and brings it back to one absolute we can depend on in the midst of all of this, which turns out to be another question.

It’s not “Does God get what God wants?”
“Do we get what we want?”

And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.

God is that loving.

If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to do that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.

If, however, we crave light,
we’re drawn to truth,
we’re desperate for grace,
we’ve come to the end of our plots and schemes
and we want someone else’s path,
God gives us what we want.

If we have this sense
that we’ve wandered far from home,
and we want to return,
God is there,
standing in the driveway,
arms open,
ready to invite us in.

If we thirst for shalom,
and we long for the peace that transcends all understanding,
God just doesn’t give,
they’re poured out on us,
until we’re overwhelmed.
It’s like a feast where the food and wine do not run out.

And to that,
that impulse, craving, yearning, longing, desire –
God says yes.
Yes, there is water for that thirst,
food for that hunger,
light for that darkness,
relief for that burden.

If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.

That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced.

It always leaves room for the other to decide

God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.

Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” in the larger context

For those of you who haven’t heard, Hip Pastor Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins was released this past Tuesday to significant debate within the Christian community. Before the book had been released, and even read, there was already a firestorm of controversy from names as large as John Piper suggesting that, in so many words, Bell was a universalist, heretic, false teacher, and, though not mentioned, perhaps the Anti-Christ. Ok, not the Anti-Christ, but needless to say these were not positive thoughts. Aside from the fact that the entirety of the pre-release negative criticism was perpetrated by people who hadn’t (and, if I were a betting person, probably still haven’t) read the book, Love Wins occupies a place in a much wider debate and context than most reviews acknowledge. Understanding the wider context can, I think, make a little more sense of how Love Wins is intended to function, and, ultimately, what it is trying to say.

Roll back to the early days of the Reformation. John Calvin, expanding on St. Augustine, puts the Doctrine of Election at the center of his systematic theology. Specifically, Calvin’s view of Election centers around the idea that, before the foundation of time, God has predestined some to be saved, and some to be condemned (also know as “double-predestination”). As Calvin’s theology was worked out, particularly at the Synod of Dort, this became one of the central tenets of Calvinist belief, and has influenced the Reformed tradition, and by extension a large majority of Evangelical Christianity to this day. God, the story goes, chooses of his own free will some (the Elect) who he will save. Those not chosen by God are condemned. God remains just in doing this because all have sinned – all stand guilty before God. God is not obligated to save anyone – he is well within his rights to condemn everyone. The fact that God saves anyone, then, is Good News.

Even from the beginning, however (and even going back to St. Augustine), a wide variety of Christians have been skeptical of this position, primarily because Election, when seen from this perspective, really doesn’t sound like Good News. If you aren’t part of the Elect, in particular, it sounds like very bad news. Thus, for the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived, the “Good News” of Jesus is, in effect, a sentence to never ending torture and torment throughout eternity. For all but a very small few, it is, to be sure, a Gospel of Bad News.

The most major challenge to this view of Election came from the twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. For those of you who’ve never heard of Barth, no less than Pope Pius XII declared him to be the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Consider the fact Barth hails from the Reformed tradition, and that is particularly high praise indeed. Barth’s theology is far too complicated to boil down to a few paragraphs, let alone a few sentences, but I will try to summarize the most relevant bit to this particular discussion. Barth re-forms the Doctrine of Election, and applies it first and foremost to Jesus Christ – this is, after all, Christian theology. Barth’s thesis in his Doctrine of Election is that, in choosing (electing) Jesus Christ, God has, in a sense chosen who He will be – and importantly he has chosen that he will be for humanity, rather than against it. Christ is predestined for God’s “no” in his death on the cross, but also predestined for God’s “yes” in the event of the resurrection. In Christ’s cross, God says “no” to humanity, as God’s humiliation overturns (and says “no” to) our pride, but in the resurrection, God says “yes”, exalting Jesus, and in some sense all humanity also joins with that. As a result, Barth has commonly been criticized as promoting a sort of “soft” universalism. To think about it in a different way, consider John Owen’s argument for the Doctrine of Limited Atonement (i.e. Christ didn’t die for everyone, he only died for the Elect): “If Christ died for everyone, he failed – because he clearly didn’t save everyone.” Barth essentially calls a bluff on this position and says, “Are you so sure Christ didn’t save everyone? What if he did? Why not? Would that be such a bad thing?” Barth’s position is that, in Electing Jesus Christ, God is making Good News for the whole human race. All humanity is, in some sense, “saved” in Him.

Barth’s work is extremely influential in academic circles, but clearly hasn’t caught on much in the broader evangelical context. Interestingly, Love Wins can be read as a repainting of Barth for the masses. We’ll get back to this in another post.

The sort of “cold war” between Barth and Calvin stayed relatively dormant in wider circles until the rise of what has been called the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), spearheaded most prominently by the Pauline scholar N.T. Wright, who is the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, and current Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews. As with Barth, it would be impossible to summarize the views of all NPP scholars in a couple of sentences, but again I will try to hit the highlights that matter for the discussion of Love Wins. The two most important consequences to our discussion rising out of NPP scholarship are 1) a re-examination of Justification Theories in general, and 2) a proposal to shift from a “Jesus came so you could to go to heaven after you die” eschatology.

The specifics of how NPP scholars make these arguments is lengthy and perhaps the subject of future posts, but for now assume that Wright and company more or less suggest that Luther and Calvin made certain assumptions about Paul which then colored everything that followed, and notably produced some significant tensions within the text. If you change those assumptions, different systems follow. An example to give a flavor of the type of thing a NPP scholar might say: if Justification Theory readings of Paul are correct, there seems to be an inherent tension in the epistemology of condemnation and salvation. The claim in Justification Theory, at least, is that everyone is condemned, because everyone stands in willful opposition to God and his ways (an assumption that itself has internal problems). The epistemology of condemnation, in other words, is universal: everybody is damned, and more importantly they know it. It is self-evident simply from observation of the universe (Paul: “all men are without excuse…”). The epistemology of salvation, on the other hand, is not universal, but particular. It arrives only in knowledge of the historical person of Jesus Christ. Concretely, all people are condemned by the fact they are alive, but you are saved only if a missionary manages to make it to your village. The problem rests in that while you are condemned by examination of the universe, you can’t save yourself by that same process – there are, in short, two epistemologies at work, which from the standpoint of a theory, is very problematic.

Needless to say, there are plenty of people who aren’t thrilled about the deconstruction of traditional doctrines, and who aren’t going to take it sitting down. After the publication of Wright’s Paul: in Fresh Perspective in 2005, Neo-Calvinist Pastor and author John Piper fired back, going so far as to name names with his 2007 book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. In 2009, Wright responded with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, devoting significantly more time to presenting a rigorous view of his Pauline theology. In 2008, Wright also published Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Does the subtitle sound familiar? Each of these books deserves a full review in its own right, and there are many reviews all over the internet if you’re interested. The main point is that there is a significant debate about these points right now with good, honest, bible-reading, smart people on each side.

Here’s the bottom line: read in a vacuum, Rob Bell’s Love Wins seems like a “cool” mega-pastor inventing a completely new idea about Jesus, then spinning it off so he can sell a few million more books. Read as a part of the larger discussion on Election, Justification Theory, and Christian eschatology over the past 100 years, Love Wins is the latest salvo in what is increasingly becoming a “hot war”. Bell, like Wright and Barth, is questioning beliefs which have marked the social boundaries of Christian communities for hundreds of years. Just like wars between countries take place along geographical boundaries, conflicts over social boundaries almost always flare up to be ugly battles. Therefore, while Bell’s book may not be anywhere as new, revolutionary, or crazy as his detractors would like to present, it shouldn’t be at all surprising, given its place in the discussion, that it’s generated the kind of response it has.

As for what the book actually says…

that will have to wait for the next post.

Stevens, Scalia, and the hermeneutics of Scripture

While my parents were in town my father mentioned attending an event where Justices Stevens and Scalia held a discussion on interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia’s position, at least as it was related to me, was that interpretation of the Constitution begins first with an investigation of the original intent of the authors of law, whether the Constitution itself or the various court decisions through the years. For instance, if there is a case involving an early court decision, it is important to begin by examining all aspects of the case, including the notes taken by the clerks in private sessions. In other words, Scalia would subscribe (loosely) to the first hermeneutic principle proposed by Fee and Stuart in their influential book How to read the Bible for all it’s Worth: a passage cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original audience. The current meaning of the passage foundationally rests on what the passage originally meant, and thus to properly interpret a passage our first move is to attempt to determine the passage’s original meaning. The first question of scriptural analysis is one of original meaning: the conditions and intent of the author in its original context.

Stevens, on the other hand, wants to suggest that our accounts of the original intent are unreliable, or at least uncertain. How do we know the notes taken by the 22 year old scribe accurately reflect the original intent of the Justices? How can we possibly know what nine guys 200 years ago meant when they were writing something? Going back and speculating on original intent seems to be a difficult, if not impossible enterprise. There is too much of a gap there, and even if we could be certain of their intent, what if it doesn’t really apply today? How do we know that what justices thought and how they interpreted law 200 years ago is still a valid interpretation today? Furthermore, how do we know the intent of the original founders jives with our current reality? They seemed to think non-whites were only three fifths of a person, and that Native Americans weren’t people at all. This seems not just old-fashioned today, but plain wrong. We believe today, at least in theory, that the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence should apply to all people – not just white males. In such cases, how far can we really take the intent of the original framers or Justices?

The disagreement then, is one of hermeneutic principles. What approach do we take when we are trying to interpret a document written in a particular time period, context and culture that isn’t our own. It isn’t as much a disagreement in results as it is one of method. Where do we even start when we are trying to figure out what something means *for us*? It doesn’t seem to be a terribly clear cut question.

This doesn’t only apply to the Constitution, of course. For my purposes, it’s much more interesting in the approach different people take to Scripture. The approach taken by many churches today rests firmly with Stuart and Fee (and Scalia) – that first of all a passage cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original audience. If we take this as a starting point, though, it seems to leave us with some difficulties. First, the tools for getting at what the text meant “back then” are historical, not theological. In other words, to figure out what the passage meant, we need primarily to be good historians or anthropologists, rather than good theologians. In some sense, this makes theology subordinate to history, and, to borrow a criticism from Barth, makes the starting point of theology man instead of God. We can see this tension at work in the Quest and reaction to the Historical Jesus. The tools for getting at the Historical Jesus are history and literary criticism, not theology. As a result, (and because he tends to look a lot like the people who “created” him) the Historical Jesus turns out to be a pretty bad place to start a theological journey.

Second, as Stevens points out, our attempts to understand what the actual intent and original context of the author and audience is, at best, speculative and uncertain. The two thousand year gap is a big one to close, and while we can make guesses about the original intent, we are so far removed culturally from the modern near east, let alone the ancient near east, that our statements about the situation of the church in a particular city at a particular time are all a kind of fiction. This seems especially true because we generally attempt to read our source document (say, Ephesians) to get clues about what the cultural and socioeconomic context of the church was, then apply those cultural and socioeconomic realities to the source document as a lens to determine what the text “meant”. The unfortunate reality is that we don’t have a lot of extra-biblical sources that tell us what the church in Ephesus was like independent of Ephesians, and thus, our socio-cultural reasoning tends about particular New Testament churches tends to be circular.

Finally, the attempt to limit the meaning of the text to its original context seems to deny, in a sense, that the word of God is “living and active” – that it has any relevance for today. Christianity has proven remarkably resilient, surviving and even thriving in contexts quite different from its origin. A large part of this, it can be argued, is that the teachings of the Bible can be painted and repainted in new contexts while still remaining relevant. While Stuart and Fee would certainly not argue that Scripture could never speak to a subject outside its original context, I contend that their first hermeneutic principle is none the less highly restrictive, and when taken seriously effectively limits the interpretation of scripture to narrow historical contexts that have little relevance to today. Modern notions of egalitarianism, capitalism, and democratic government were completely outside the scope of the patriarchal, feudal, authoritarian structures of the day – structures that formed the basis for much of the original context of Scripture. If we accept Fee and Stuart’s first principle and apply it rigorously, it seems the scope of Scripture, and the critique it can bring to bear, is highly limited.

In short, I think as we approach Scripture we should be more open to the view of Stevens – that we should start first with what Scripture means and how it speaks to us today, and then go look at what it meant as a secondary enterprise. This is a starting point that makes many people (including me) a bit uncomfortable, because it seems to endorse the Liberal principle that Scripture can be interpreted however it needs to be in light of our current context, rather than being grounded by a guiding, universal context. However, if we believe both that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that his words speak to us where we are, I think we must believe that a community which openly and honestly submits itself to Scripture can faithfully follow Christ without needing to first interpret scripture across a gap that may well be intractable.

Type 1 and Type 2 Errors of Doctrine

Dr. Richard Beck recently had a couple of posts on his blog regarding “The Theology of Type 1 and Type 2 Errors“, specifically dealing with the ideas of “saved” and “lost”. His second post expanded on the (I think) interesting idea that really the disagreements we have as Christians are fundamentally disagreements about what God is like. Both of these posts are rather interesting, but they got me thinking about the idea of Type 1 and Type 2 errors in terms of things like doctrine.

For those of you who aren’t statisticians or scientists dealing with automated classification systems, Type 1 and Type 2 errors are specific terms we use when talking about the kinds of errors we can make when classifying or predicting events. Because I deal with classifications more than I do with statistics per-se, I tend to think of Type 1 and Type 2 errors in the slightly different but related vocabulary of “false positives” and “false negatives”. Simply put, a false positive occurs when we declare something to be true when it is in fact false, or say something happened when in fact it did not. A false negative occurs when we incorrectly say something is false when it was really true, or that nothing happened when in fact something did.

One important aspect of Type 1 and Type 2 errors is that they are inherently related – we can set an arbitrary Type 1 error rate (even down to zero), but as we decrease our chance of making a Type 1 error, we increase our chance of making a Type 2 error. One of the easiest (and most classic) examples to illustrate this is the legal system. Consider a capital murder trial. The jury commits a Type 1 error if they convict the defendant when he or she was actually innocent. The verdict is a false positive, because we’re saying the defendant actually committed the crime, but they in fact did not. We have falsely sentenced an innocent person, possibly to die. On the other hand, the jury commits a Type 2 error if they acquit the defendant when he or she was in fact guilty. This verdict was a false negative – we said the defendant didn’t commit the crime, though in fact they did. Notice how we can change, and indeed bias the frequency of our errors. We can reduce our Type 1 error rate to zero if we never convict anyone, but we will be certain that all guilty people will also go free. Likewise we can make sure no murders are ever escape justice if we sentence everyone to prison, regardless of their actual guilt. In the absence of these two extremes, however, we can never be certain that we will never commit an error – and furthermore we should expect that we will commit errors; the best we can do is bias ourselves to making certain *types* of errors.

Critically, both Type 1 and Type 2 errors are errors. This sounds obvious, but isn’t always appreciated. A practical example in my field is the idea of “security” and “reliability” in circuit breakers. Reliability means that the circuit breaker *must* open when there is a problem. Failure to do so could mean the destruction of property and even death. In other words, it is unacceptable to have a false negative. If there is a real problem, we need to act on it. On the other hand, we don’t want the device to operate when there isn’t a problem either. If your circuit breaker tripped every time you turned on a light switch, it would become annoying quickly. If this actually happened, you would uninstall the technology that’s intended to protect you because, in effect, it kept crying “wolf”. This is called “security” – if the device operates when it isn’t supposed to it can give us headaches. In this example, both kinds of errors are bad. They are not, however, equally bad. In this case, killing someone is much worse than annoying someone, so circuit breakers tend to be biased toward reliability at the expense of security. There are things we can do that can reduce the rates of *both* types of errors, but we cannot eliminate both of them completely.

Perhaps the trickiest part of those whole deal is that for any given instance, it’s impossible to *know* whether you’ve made an error simply based on looking at the data. Statistically, the concept of Type 1 and Type 2 errors are related to the probability that the results you saw would have been generated “by chance”. In other words, our conclusion about the data is supported – the data does appear to indicate that what we’re saying happened really happened. The problem is that there is a small (but finite) probability the data could have looked that way simply by chance. There is a chance you can interpret the data “correctly” (by applying whatever criteria are appropriate), reach an incorrect conclusion, and furthermore not be aware that your conclusion is incorrect.

But this was supposed to be a post about doctrine, right?

In the absence of certainty (actually being God), we have to start with the premise that there is at least a possibility we will be wrong about some of our doctrinal decisions. In fact, it’s more than a possibility – there is almost a certainty that everybody is wrong about something. Obviously we aren’t aware of the doctrinal errors we make – if we were, we would correct them. Our reading of the text (data), may be perfectly consistent, “correct”, and still be wrong. In other words, we could select an good, appropriate hermeneutic, apply it consistently and honestly to the full body of Scripture, and still come to a conclusion that is in fact not the way God will ultimately decide things. Furthermore, because we chose an appropriate measure of interpretation and applied it correctly, there would be no way we could externally verify that we reached an incorrect (from God’s perspective) conclusion.

This seems problematic. If we can never be certain about doctrinal correctness (i.e. we accept that we can look at a text “correctly” and still commit a Type 1 or Type 2 error), does that bring everything to a standstill? Well, no, I would suggest. Remember that the idea of Type 1 and Type 2 errors are coming out of statistics, and the field of statistics didn’t collapse because we can’t be certain about things. In fact, it thrives because of it. In such a system, what criteria could we apply to produce an acceptable body of doctrine and belief? I think in general, we can look to scientific inquiry as a guide for ways in which we can improve our ability to avoid making both Type 1 and Type 2 doctrinal errors.

First, in science, we require experiments to be repeatable. One scientist’s study doesn’t confirm something to be true. In 1989, several scientists with credible reputations claimed to have discovered cold fusion – a claim that if true promised to be a safe and clean energy source that would basically solve the world’s energy problems. The initial results were confirmed by major research labs at Texas A&M and Georgia Tech. But as a larger group of scientists attempted to replicate the results, there were problems – nobody could get it to work. The researchers who initially confirmed the results discovered there had been problems in their experimental setup which cause erroneous results. After additional investigation, the original scientist’s claim was rejected. Doctrinally, I believe we can apply a similar principle of repeatability. Can other people who are looking at the same data I am and reading with similar method at least verify that my conclusion is sound? To be clear, this is not a call for the democratization of doctrine. This is not a suggestion to adopt the most widely held belief as true. The majority of people in Iceland believe in gnomes and fairy spirits, but that doesn’t make it true. Our doctrinal reading must conform to the text. But if I am the only person who reads the text this way, and almost nobody else can even see where I’m coming from, that would call into question how repeatable my conclusion really is.

Second, scientists generally follow a particular method in reaching their conclusions. I can’t change the method simply because it gives results more in line with what I want. If I can convince people there is something flawed about the method, then I might be able to suggest its change – and in fact the method of scientific inquiry has changed over time. But changes in the method are made by the community as a whole over time – not by a few rogue individuals who are wanting to get different results. In this sense, the tradition of science is important. The scientific community decides what methods are “good” and what methods are “bad”. These decisions are not arbitrary – in fact there are often very good reasons why a particular method is followed. Likewise doctrinally, adherence to a “good” hermeneutic is of paramount importance. If particular doctrines do not conform to reasonable and standard hermeneutics, as informed by the greater tradition of Christianity, we should be sufficiently skeptical of them. This is not to say our hermeneutic is required to be static – indeed it seems obvious that our understanding of God should grow and change over time. It is to say, however, that changes in our method need to be informed and accepted by the broader community before truly becoming orthodox.

Finally, even though this is far from egalitarian, experts should be trusted more than laypeople. We tend to trust Stephen Hawking more than Billy Joe Jones when it comes to the field of Theoretical Physics. That’s not to say Hawking always gets it right, or that Billy Joe might not have some interesting things to say on the subject. It is to say, though, that if our lives were on the line and we could only choose one person to answer a question about neutrinos, we’d be placing a call to Cambridge instead of Mobile. Modern Evangelical Christianity tends to push the other direction – in general with a large anti-academic bias where experts are largely distrusted. Academics don’t always get it right, and laypeople don’t always get it wrong, but experts generally possess tools and training which allow them to make better sense of data than someone without such training. In general, we are less likely to commit Type 1 and Type 2 error when we assign greater value to the opinions of people who have spent years of their lives not only learning about Christian theology, but living lives which have been shaped by a serious commitment to spiritual formation. We shouldn’t immediately dismiss the viewpoints of people who don’t meet this criteria, but we should be inherently suspicious of new viewpoints that arise (or old viewpoints that are perpetuated) primarily by people who have little training and little obvious commitment to spiritual formation and discipline.

Psalms of lament

I recently discovered Mark Hamilton’s blog, and have started reading through his series on worship and their relation to the Psalms. One of the ones which stuck out to me was his discussion of Psalm 3, and our tendency to make worship a “power of positive thinking” event:

One of the more disturbing aspects of worship in Christian congregations today is the strong bias toward good cheer and superficial encouragement, no matter the circumstances, no matter the feelings that people bring with them to the service, no matter how much we have to hide or deny to keep up the facade.  In some places, we do not confess our sins, do not acknowledge systemic evil in the world, do not lament the suffering of people (unless someone runs a plane into a building), as if we believed that hope can only survive in a pretend world.

Definitely worth the read.

Evangelism After Christendom – Reflections (part 2)

Remember that book I was reading a long time ago? Evangelism After Christendom?  Yeah. It’s back thanks to a Kindle edition.

When we left Stone, he was attempting to give us the idea that in the Christian tradition, evangelism could possibly be viewed as a core practice in a loosely Macintyrian sense. Stone also takes some time to point out core problems with the way evangelism is often executed in modern churches. Chief among these problems, he argues, is that evangelism has become essentially a marketing regime which seeks to attract new people by either a) trying to make the gospel more intellectually respectable b) trying to demonstrate that it is practical (good for society, economy, or personal psychology), or c) attempting to alter the traditional “stuffiness” that has categorized church in the past and instead make church more accessible to a wider audience. Stone:

Creative reconstructions of evangelism are being attempted today, and they succeed in expanding the church by adapting it to new generations that are put off by boring liturgies, irrelevant preaching, and stuffy pipe-organ music.  But while these reconstructions have triumphed in making the church more relevant to the tastes, expectations, preferences, and quest for self-fulfillment of both the unchurched and the dechurched, they have utterly failed to challenge the racism, individualism, violence, and affluence of Western culture.  They in no way subvert an existing unjust order but rather mimic and sustain it.  Our greatest challenge is to find ways of practicing evangelism in a post-Christendom culture without at the same time playing by the rules of that culture.

Cliff’s notes? Marketing evangelism works – at least if what you mean by “works” is “attract more people”, but it doesn’t do a terribly good job of remaining true to the Christian ethos, which if you will remember from our first discussion, is what really matters. Stone again:

We kid ourselves if we think we have moved beyond Christendom simply because we are able to reach more people by getting rid of our stained glass and stuffy sermons and providing a “product” that is more user-friendly. Neither large-scale revivals that boast thousands of converts nor fast-growing megachurches that have dropped from the sky into suburban parking lots as of late are in any way indications of the proximity of God’s reign, nor is their winsomeness and friendliness to be equated with Isaiah’s “peace.” In fact, the failure of evangelism in our time is implied as much by the vigorous “success” of some churches in North America as by the steady decline of others.

This is, I think, a profound statement. You may recall a recent post where we talked about the metrics we use to evaluate whether God is “working.” What is true on an individual level is also in many ways true for Christianity as a collective – namely that we tend to view God “working” in rather selfish terms – specifically when it looks like our agenda is “winning”, our political candidates are getting elected, and our numbers are increasing. There are no shortage of problems with this theology, as pointed out in the previous post, but Stone adds another: by using metrics of success that are external to the practice, we are essentially distorting and subverting the practice itself and trading excellence for sheer effectiveness, and indeed by confusing the two. Returning to the oft-used analogy of sports, effectiveness is winning a championship – excellence is playing to your highest potential day in and day out, letting the results speak for themselves. Ted Williams is considered to be one of the finest hitters to ever play the game of baseball, but he never won a World Series. You don’t necessarily have to be excellent to be effective – in fact, being effective can be achieved in plenty of ways contrary to the ethos (ideals) or telos (purpose) of the tradition you find yourself apart of.

One way Stone proposes that we counter this tendency is to first ground evangelism theologically, rather than allowing it to be whatever it wants in order to be successful.

Those who think theologically rarely think about evangelism, and those who think about evangelism rarely take the discipline of theology very seriously.  For one thing, very little in the present reward system of most churches supports thinking theologically about evangelism. Excellence in evangelism is almost wholly governed by numerical measures of success, and pastors are rewarded primarily insofar as they attain those measures.  Those who produce the literature on evangelism – especially that which concentrates on the models that are widely touted as successful in the North American context – are particularly reluctant to think critically about the theology presupposed in their practice. Their focus instead is on finding new and creative ways to express Christian beliefs and practices – forms that are more indigenous, user-friendly, and “relevant” to the experience of contemporary human beings, or more successful in making converts in an already crowded marketplace of competitors.

This book is written out of the conviction that there is no substitute for serious theological inquiry about evangelism as a practice.  In fact, theological inquiry is itself an intrinsic part of that practice.  We cannot proceed by merely trotting out a handful of “successful” pastors of fast-growing congregations to tell us what “works”.  For it is the very question of what we are working toward, what is deemed valuable and beautiful, what we are seeking, that in our time must be reexamined and that too often goes unchallenged altogether.

The “practicality of theology does not lie merely in its strategic movement toward concrete proposals for action. Practical theology is not a bag of tricks, but a process of laying bare the assumptions that guide our practice and then drawing critically upon the practical wisdom of Scripture and the Christian tradition in order to rethink and reconstruct those assumptions.

Stone’s conclusion? Evangelism isn’t about trying to translate the message we think we know into a new context, but about residing in a changing context and remaining (or becoming) faithful witnesses of God’s peace. This is not about setting up an alternate culture that never interacts with the world around it. It is not a culture that is different because it shuns sex, drugs and rock and roll, but because it challenges, in the case of our current position, the very foundations of modern society – the economic, social and political power structures that so often serve as today’s “powers and principalities of this dark world”.  Evangelism, for Stone, is primarily about remaining grounded in a life of faithful dedication to the ethos of the Christian tradition – in his words, “witness to God’s reign of peace”.

When the practice of evangelism is not grounded firmly in the comprehensive life of witness, the church is inevitably instrumentalized, reduced to a mere tool in the service of heralding the gospel, rather than the social embodiment of God’s new creation in Christ, the very news that is to be heralded as good. For, as always, the embodiment is the heralding; the medium is the message; incarnation is invitation.  That is why, as I shall attempt to argue throughout this book, it is impossible for the church to evangelize the world and, at the same time, to serve as a chaplain to the state and allow itself to be disciplined by the logic if the market.

There are some real issues in that statement – issues that challenge the predominant theology (primarily soteriology and eschatology) in some deep and profound ways. My personal belief is that most people are not ready for the type of change that Stone is outlining, but that it might be possible to move things slowly in that direction.

The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction

This weekend I finished reading David Orrell’s book “The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction“.  As an applied scientist, the public perception of scientific modeling has been a side interest of mine. In particular, as science is pressed more and more into the service of politics and ideology, the general lack of understanding about what scientists know and how they know it should be a deep concern to us all. In The Future of Everything, Orrell attempts to give an overview of how scientific modeling has developed, what its shortcomings are, and how far we can really expect mathematical models to predict the future.

Effectively, Orrell starts with the following observation: despite an exponential increase in funding and computing power over the last 100 years, predictive models (particularly in the fields of weather and economic forecasting) have made surprisingly little progress in producing accurate predictions about the future. In fact, modern weather forecasts for beyond a few days are only marginally more accurate, on the whole, than a forecast based on the climatological average for a particular day, in spite of their increasing complexity. Orrell spends much of the book exploring why models fail to give accurate predictions, with climate, the economy, and genetics as his three case studies.

Over the course of the book, Orrell explores a variety of shortcomings in modern mathematical models which aren’t necessarily solved by better computers or more complicated models. Some of the most important ones are (in no particular order):

  • Attempting to model complex non-linear systems is mathematically problematic: In the 18th century, mathematical modeling seemed to offer limitless progress.  Newton’s laws had transformed a seemingly complicated universe into a few lines of mathematics. If we could predict the course of the stars and planets, surely the world was at our command.  Well, not exactly.  As it turns out, Newton’s laws of motion turn out to be one of the easiest physical things to model. As Orrell says, part of Newton’s genius was picking a system that was possible to model – the same being true of Gregor Mendel’s study of genetic traits in peas. There may be simple equations for how a planet moves around the sun, but trying to predict how the wind blows (or how a plane flies) is a lot more complicated.
  • Chaos: Jeff Goldblum made chaos a trendy term in Jurassic Park, but it remains fairly misunderstood. In modeling, a chaotic system is one where small changes in the initial conditions can dramatically alter the trajectory of the system. Because we can never know the precise initial conditions of a system like the atmosphere or the economy, small perturbations in the initial conditions (or parameters) used in models can have a large effect on the resulting predictions. The fact that model parameterization is often at least somewhat subjective compounds this issue.
  • Computational irreducibility: Systems exist which are fairly simple, non-chaotic, produce clear patterns, behave according to only a few rules, and yet are computationally impossible to predict. The best example of this is Conway’s Game of Life. The Game of Life functions according to only four rules, yet it is impossible to write equations which will predict the state of a cell at any arbitrary time. The only way to find out is to run the system.
  • Emergent properties: Emergent properties refer to the unpredictable ways which simple entities interact to form complex results. Think “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” These emergent properties cannot be simplified to simple physical laws.
  • Feedback loops: Most systems have competing positive and negative feedback loops which control the system. One example is blood clotting. Positive feedback is necessary to quickly stop bleeding. If unchecked, all your blood would clot and you would die, so negative feedback slows the process when it reaches an appropriate level. The way feedback loops interact with each other complicates model parameterization.
  • Matching the model to past observed data does not ensure accurate predictions: Just because a model matches past observed data does not mean it is correct, nor that it offers any predictive power about the future. A chicken might build a model that predicts a long and happy life based on observations of the farmer coming to feed him every morning. That model holds well, until the day he becomes the farmer’s dinner.

Orrell summarizes as follows:

  • Prediction is a holistic business. Our future weather, health, and wealth depend on interrelated effects and must be treated in an integrated fashion.
  • Long-term prediction is no easier than short-term prediction.  The comparison with reality is just farther away.
  • We cannot accurately predict systems such as the climate for two reasons: (1) We don’t have the equations. In an uncomputable system, they don’t exist; and (2) The ones we have are sensitive to errors in parameterization. Small changes to existing models often result in a wide spread of different predictions.
  • We cannot accurately state the uncertainty in predictions.  For the same two reasons.
  • The effects of climate change on health and the economy (and their effects on the climate) are even harder to forecast. When different models are combined, the uncertainties multiply.
  • The emergence of new diseases is inherently random and unpredictable. Avian flu may be the next big killer – but a bigger worry is the one that no one has heard about yet.
  • Simple predictions are still possible. These usually take the form of general warnings rather than precise statements.
  • Models can help us understand system fragilities.  A warmer climate may cause tundra to melt and rainforests to burn, thus releasing their massive stores of carbon.  However, the models cannot predict the exact probability of such events, or their exact consequences.

So where does that leave us? Orrell again:

Einstein’s theory of relativity was accepted not because a committee agreed that it was a very sensible model, but because its predictions, most of which were highly counterintuitive, could be experimentally verified.  Modern GCMs (Global Climate Models) have no such objective claim to validity, because they cannot predict the weather over any relevant time scale. Many of their parameters are invented and adjusted to approximate past climate patterns.  Even if this is done using mathematical procedures, the process is no less subjective because the goals and assumptions are those of the model builders. Their projections into the future – especially when combined with the output of economic models – are therefore a kind of fiction.  The fact that climate change is an important and contentious issue makes it all the more important that we acknowledge this.  The problem with the models is not that they are subjective or objective – there is nothing wrong with a good story, or an informed and honestly argued opinion. It is that they are couched in the language of mathematics and probabilities: subjectivity masquerading as objectivity.  Like the Wizard of Oz, they are a bit of a sham.

[A]s I argued in this book, we cannot obtain accurate equations for atmospheric, biological, or social systems, and those we have are typically sensitive to errors in parameterization.  By varying a handful of parameters within apparently reasonable bounds, we can get a single climate model to give radically different answers.  These problems do not go away with more research or a faster computer; the number of unknown parameters explodes, and the crystal ball grows murkier still. … We can’t mathematically calculate the odds, even if it looks serious, scientific, and somehow reassuring to do so.

Orrell is clear to point out, however, that the fact we cannot guarantee the accuracy of our predictions does not mean they are necessarily wrong, or shouldn’t be heeded. Varying parameters in climate models may in fact produce a wide range of results, but that doesn’t mean we should take a wait and see approach. Economic models failed spectacularly to predict the current economic crisis – but it still happened.

Orrell’s argument, then, is for a kind of literacy when using scientific models to inform decisions. Scientific predictions can be helpful, and often are. But they are limited in their ability to predict future events with certainty, and these problems aren’t necessarily going to be solved with better data and models, or with more powerful computers. They shouldn’t be ignored, but rather viewed for what they are: a tool for helping us understand the present, and hopefully make the best decisions we can about the future.