What Belongs in the House? (142)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss an introspection on “where John is at,” touching on John’s views about God, his career, and life generally.

John opens with his concern of being being misunderstood by listeners, and specifically not wanting to regret being “nailed down” to what he offers today while sharing personally and honestly. Gregg notes that he finds it strange to hear John being unclear about his (John’s) own views or how John wants to describe his position.

John acknowledges that he holds his personal views about Christianity much more tentatively than his views about other topics that the two discuss, and so even with a “gun to his head” he would likely still be unable to offer a clear, definite answer about what he believes. This strikes John as problematic, both in that it is contrary to what John’s background taught him (which is that one is supposed to know what one believes) and it runs counter to the general, societal “norm” (which assumes that by a particular age one is again supposed to have things figured out).

In other words, in both John’s church and academic experiences, doubts were not present. It was a foundational assumption that Christianity was true and that everyone else (in the church or academy) believed it. John connects this with his L’Abri experience, where he effectively “threw out” those parts of his Christian beliefs that were really not Christian without replacing it with very many new thing. And after a time he re-started the process of “throwing things out” while doing this podcast (Untangling Christianity). Likening his beliefs about God to a house, John explains how his house is almost empty from all the purging, yet Christian culture dictates that the house needs furnishings.

John then discusses how his sense of “where he is at” with Christianity contrast with his perspectives on his coaching career.

John explains how he has become passionate about coachingsharpening a skill that is also a natural ability (although an ability that he did not know that he had). Thus while coaching requires hard work John’s investment in coaching is both enjoyable and satisfying in many ways. This offers a clear contrast to the results of John’s investigations about Christianity.

Gregg wonders about John’s participation in the Christian “tribe.” John responds that he wants to be in a tribe, but one where he can not only agree to the bylaws but believes them enough to want to promote that tribe to others. From Gregg’s perspective he wonders how much of the issue for John about being part of the tribe must be based on understanding how well the tribe’s bylaws “test drive.”

Gregg also wonders whether John’s analogy of his beliefs as a “house” may actually fit into other paradigms, such as the tiny house movement. Stated differently, Gregg wonders to what degree not only the content of John’s “belief house” but its very nature—its size, the expectations of how full it should be, etc.—is a product of terms and expectations set by John’s (former) tribe?

So Gregg considers that re-structuring the house might be better than demolishing it, yet restructuring would also seem to require understanding the bylaws and the foundations upon which it was built. This seems also to be more commensurate with John’s willingness to continue considering Christianity, but to do so on John’s terms (i.e., Christianity must reconcile with John’s lived experience—it must integrate with real life).

John answers by contrasting coaching and counseling, while also proposing it might be easier to “level” the “house” and start over instead of continuing to work with what he’s collected so far.

Gregg offers two reasons to be cautious about demolition. First, if the “house” is demolished one still needs someplace to live. How will that work out? Second, without understanding enough about the foundations and bylaws (i.e., one’s past and the background of one’s beliefs) it can be all too easy once having created a new “house” to resist the temptation to adopt whatever new perspective comes along!

John notes that, on the one hand, he was taught that one can only have the best life possible if that life involves God. Yet John is surrounded by people who appear to be living very integrated, satisfying lives without God. Yet on the other hand people come in large numbers to many churches—and keep coming—so something must be working. So John see these opposing situation and finds this confusing.

Gregg agrees. In fact, this is the tension of which Christians should be aware. Gregg also sees that John has made a fundamental shift in what counts as the baseline for bylaws, whereas John sees this as trading in the bylaws for anarchy. Gregg demurs: John seems to have taken a global approach, so that any bylaw (regardless of its origin).

So Gregg wagers that John’s standards are both much higher and more consistent, such that most Christians display very little intellectual consistency or rigor in assessing their lives or their beliefs, whereas John has taken (and continues to take) significant strides in these regards. John sees this as potentially arrogant.

Yet Gregg again demurs: in removing so much of the contents of his “faith house” John actually has already made judgments and acted on them decisively, and John’s consistent action in this regard shows integrity. Thus Gregg emphasizes that John has displayed judgment in the sense of a willingness to make decisions and act upon them, in accord with one’s values (such as valuing the integration of faith and life).

John wonders, “So what are the next steps?”

Gregg asks several questions, by way of answer. First, What would it be like for John if re-modelling the house were as compelling as coaching? Second, if John is seeking a proper integration of faith and life and John has already spent considerable time and effort evaluating the “faith side” of this equation, why is it not fair for John to be spending more time now developing (and evaluating) the “life side” of the equation? Third, when considering coaching—especially John’s passion, natural skill, and benefit to others—how better of an analogy could one wish to have from one’s life of what one would like one’s faith to be like!

This Gregg sees as reflecting the necessary reciprocity between faith and life, such that it is not only the Bible that informs Christians about life but valuable aspects of our lived existence inform our faith. So could John not read the Bible “through the lens” of coaching? What might John learn?

Overall, Gregg argues that a house that is “the right size” with furniture that is comfortable yet elegant, with an entryway that is accessible yet secure, and with views that are striking and yet without the house being so exposed as to be concerned for its safety—all this takes time to create. And, problematically, the very people that claim to give us the blueprints, sell us the furniture and instruct us on how to put it all together are misguided in key ways.

Thus while Gregg agrees with some of the non-negotiables of evangelical Christianity—such as having a roof that does not leak or a foundation that does not shift—yet there are many ways of doing this, whereas most of the ways modeled by evangelical Christianity, if they work, will leave us with a house with very high walls around it or with entryways that only allow people to enter in exactly the way that we dictate.

Instead Gregg wants his “house” to be ready to welcome many different types of people in many different ways (which does not mean that Gregg’s house does not have a door and that that door does not have a lock—it does, and the door is strong).  But Gregg wants to ensure that it is easy for anyone to find that door.  And the need to think “outside the standard blueprints and models” may means that we are no longer buying our furniture but actually making it ourselves.

Paying an Intellectual Cost (141)

In this episode John and Gregg resume their discussion from last episode of the article on apologetics in the Biola University Magazine: “Young people are indeed leaving the church,” by Craig Hazen and Larry Barnett.

During this conversation John contrasts the above article with another, entitled “How becoming more secular brought me closer to Jesus,” by Allison Lynch. John does so in part to investigate a hunch that he had from last episode. Namely, that while the Biola article contends that much (if not all) of the difficulties that cause young people to leave the church are due to unanswered doubts, that this is not the case.

In other words, John contends that Barnett and Hazen’s approach is entirely partial and that it will not be effective where the issues forcing people from the church are experiential, and not intellectual, such as the situation that Allison Lynch presents.

Lynch’s article chronicles her evangelical past and, ultimately, her break from evangelicalism.

Gregg agrees with John regarding the insufficiency of a purely intellectual approach. Further, Gregg finds it curious that Barnett’s Next Gen Project is based on a study noting six issues that young people have with the church. Yet Barnett’s argument centers on only one of the six issue (the church being “doubtless”), and has taken the issue of being doubtless out of context of the original study!

In other words, rather than focusing on the issue as stated (that the church is does not doubt enough and / or is unfriendly toward those with doubts) Barnett is instead effectively claiming that the research shows that those who doubt are falling away from the church—not the conclusion of the original research at all! Gregg finds this (mis)use of others’ research to be very problematic.

Gregg comes back to John’s famous phrase of needing his Christian faith “to reconcile with his lived experience,” and noting that both one’s experience and one’s Bible reading should be questioned. Ultimately though, Gregg views both the Biola article and Barnett’s website as entirely focused on the intellectual, in the sense of “knowing the right stuff and applying it in the right way.”

For John the other missing piece is about behavioral conformity. For example, in her article Allison notes that there were things that she had to “hide” from her small group and her pastor. John sees this as being an evangelical “behavioral code” that forced Allison to hide or mask herself to other Christians. John wonders if this is Allison’s church not being able to connect with her doubts or differences, and yet these doubts and differences had a clearly (and even mainly) experiential quality.

Gregg wonders about the notion of doubts generally: much depends on what is being doubted (or in Allison’s case, what had to be “hidden” in light of her doubts). So Gregg doubts that Allison’s church was able to integrate its member’s theories about God—their theology—and their understandings about real life in a sufficiently robust way, and thus when a clash arose between Bible and life, Bible would always win. In such an environment honesty about “real life” is impossible.

Indeed, Gregg notes that part of one’s responsibility as a Christian is to doubt the perspectives—the beliefs and theologies—of our fellow Christians, whether skeptically or suspiciously or both, in order that Christianity has a greater chance of being more associated with truth than with the status quo! So against an epistemological formulation of doubts (that doubts are related to a lack of correct knowledge) Gregg advocates equally an experiential basis for doubt.

John appreciates Allison’s view that, by moving away from the unnecessarily strict filter of “Christian or not,” she has been able to see that she is responsible for her own happiness and to see people for who they truly are (rather than trying to change them). Gregg agrees with this in part, though he views the fact that these categories (of “Christian or not,” or seeing someone as “saved or not”) are so entrenched and so primary to evangelical thinking as a clear indication of the brokenness of evangelicalism.

In such cases Gregg advocates acting on one’s doubts, not ignoring them or trying to dispel them, noting that doubts are in fact incredibly valuable, as doubts are key to fueling further research. In other words, while curiosity is an excellent prompt to research the Bible, Gregg instead finds that doubts are an even better catalyst: they can compel us to good change.

Gregg notes that insofar as Allison’s indicates that she is moving away from evangelicalism, it is crucial to understand that atheism—should Allison’s or anyone else’s situation result in embracing atheism—is in fact a truth-seeking exercise!

John and Gregg finish with a discussion of Allison’s comment that “I reject the idea that you can only find God in an Evangelical Christian church setting, or that you can only begin to understand God through the message of Jesus Christ.” John finds her view, and particularly her contention that “there are so many gaping holes in this theology, it’s hard to know where to begin” to be unsatisfying.

Gregg agrees, and views Allison’s comment as both vestigial (of her former beliefs) and non-sensical, as the very claims of every religious view, with the exception of Baha’i (which Gregg sees not as a belief set but as an “interface” to belief), make clear claims to exclusivity. In other words, insofar as Allison’s claim is to a breadth of options for knowing God, this very claim is actually contradicted by the terms of all of the major religions!

Bogus Commandments (140)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss an article from the Fall 2016 Biola University Magazine entitled, “Young People are Indeed leaving the Church.”

John summarizes the article as stating that the reason why young people are leaving the church is because they have “doubts,” and if these doubts can be sufficiently addressed then young people–essentially millenials–will have better relationships with God (and essentially will stay in church).

The article argues that Christian apologetics is the answer to the lack of church participation among millenials, yet John finds this line of reasoning questionable on several levels. First, the importance of Christian apologetics appears to be exaggerated by the way that the article presents it as a “command”:

These three findings highlight the wisdom of the Apostle Peter when he commanded followers of Christ to ‘be prepared always to give an answer’ (1 Pet. 3:15). The findings also make a strong case for the critical importance of apologetics for the church in the current generation. Doubts are everywhere. Almost all of us have them. And when not properly addressed, they can be spiritually disastrous. By contrast, faithfully answering questions and providing strong evidence for the truth of the Christian faith can have dramatic positive effects on the spiritual lives of others, especially our young people.

From this John wonders, “What does it mean for something to be ‘commanded’?” Does it mean that one must do this thing or be sinning (and so not “following God”)?  He also wonders how this ‘command’ to “always be prepared to give an answer” stacks up against other “commands,” such as the command to love God, one’s neighbor, or the ten commandments in the Hebrew Bible?

Second, Gregg raises the point that John himself has also raised before: that John’s own issues with Christianity were not purely intellectual but are also—and maybe more so—experiential, in the sense that Christianity does not seem “to reconcile with” John’s lived experience. So while some people may only have intellectual needs, the experiential needs are also valid.  Gregg thinks similarly: an intellectual, apologetic response seems misguided because ‘better’ information is not the sole, and likely not the the primary, determining factor in overcoming obstacles to Christian belief appear viable.

Returning to the question of whether 1 Peter 3:15 represents a “command” to Christians, Gregg notes the significance in terms of communication between the recipients of the New Testament and those of the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, Christians are exhorted to communicate “to the entire world” the good news relative to the kingship of Jesus (and thus the opening of God’s kingdom to all people), whereas the role of Israel as a nation was to be “God’s people.”

So Gregg notes that the unqualified nature of the “greatest” and the “next greatest” commandment—imperatives that remain the same regardless of context—is entirely different from the very specific context of 1 Peter 3. Gregg agrees that being “always prepared to give an answer” may indeed be a very important orientation for Christians in contexts other than that of suffering by experiencing persecution (which is the context of 1 Peter 3), but this does not represent a “command.”

Rather, commandments are unqualified and so they can legitimately be multi-contextual—they don’t sit within a specific context but have universal application.

In reading through 1 Peter 3, Gregg notes Peter’s orientation is towards how Christians are to speak and act in the context of being persecuted, and that in light of acting in ways that are contrary to cultural expectations (for those under persecution) they must always be ready to offer an explanation for their baffling behaviour! In other words, this passage has nothing to do with addressing doubts of non-Christians but with explaining loving, joyful behaviour of Christians in the face of events that would call for the very opposite behaviour!

So Gregg also sees this interpretation as related to point #2: Christians are to be “always prepared to offer a reason” for why they act differently—for the source of their hope, faith, and love—and especially when their current context would seem to preclude having hope, faith, or love. Thus these “reasons” themselves take the form of experientially informed and experientially targeted reasons–they both come from experience and address experience!

John raises a challenge to Gregg of working through a book of the Bible on the podcast. John also wonders how, if Gregg is graduate-trained in theology / Christianity, why he isn’t willing to commit to an interpretation of a biblical verse without first qualifying his credentials and consulting a commentary; where does this leave those people who have no real background in theology or exegesis? Do we all have to be as learned as biblical exegetes in order to feel confident in reading our Bibles?

Also, where the article raises the notion of “doubts” as purely negative, Gregg views them as essential to healthy faith. Further, a doubt about one thing actually represents confidence in something else. In other words, doubts are only one side of the coin: the notion that people are doubting Christianity has its corollary in the fact that these some people are finding more truth elsewhere!

Failing to understand this necessary dynamic (and so understand and engage with these other, seemingly more truthful claims) means that any proposed solution will necessarily miss the mark.

John returns to the notion of biblical truth claims and biblical truth values in terms of 1 Peter and wonders: how would he understand this book? Gregg suggests several steps. First, take a section 10 verses before and 10 verses after the verse under discussion and read this section 5 times, over several days. Let it sink in. Next, pretend this section of text is a painting and try to image what is being portrayed upon the canvas. Note what flows well and what seems disjointed or dissonant in the section. If you find dissonance, ask yourself: What would this section have to mean in order for passage to read or flow smoothly—in order for there to be no dissonance?

So Gregg notes that proof-texting has the effect of highlighting verses, rather than assuming that the biblical text is written competently and “flows.” Thus, hold the assumption that verse is clear and has good flow, and then ask: What would be needed for this to be the case?

Ultimately Gregg thinks that when Christians read the Bible in this way they are seeing entire section of the text as “carriers” for specific verses that these same Christian readers are quite likely simply to “commandify” the highlighted verse in order to validate their own views (or responses) about that verse. Thus Gregg sees the solutions proposed in the article as being an outworking of this method of Bible reading: it is essentially “leading the witness.”  Stated otherwise, the article’s authors seem to have a preferred “solution” and then are forming or interpreting the data in order to support that solution.

Do Core Values Mix with Christianity? (139)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss what “core values” are and how they apply to Christianity.

Gregg explains that he created a questionnaire for his church group when he understood that several participants were having a very hard time engaging with the material on self-deceit. One of those questions was: “What is satisfying to you about your Christian life (in other words, what value is your Christian life to you in your day-to-day life)?”

Gregg’s spouse, Susan, offered that Christianity is satisfying to her because it aligns with her core values. From Gregg’s perspective this answer was very different in the sense that the other responses were more oriented to answering “What makes you feel good about being a Christian?” Yet this essentially were all oriented toward how they were able to help others (rather than being satisfying to themselves).

John notes that clarity about one’s core values is both helpful for self-understanding and allows us to have a better sense of our priorities (in how we live out our various core values), such that when one lives in alignment with one’s core values life is, generally speaking, noticeably better. John sees this as “being in alignment with the best version of oneself.”

By contrast, John questions how some versions of Christianity try to impose a standard set of core values or beliefs, such that this set should be a Christian’s core values and so questions this.  John also explains how common conflicts occur between people when they prioritize their values differently.

So John wonders if our core values must be “prescribed” from the Bible or if are they essential parts of who we are.

Gregg agrees that core values are innate and yet believes that human values are often in need of guidance or correction. For example, Gregg identifies love and truth / truth and love as his core values and so excludes values that would ignore or undermine either of these. Also, inherent to the notion of core values is how accurately one sees oneself and how competent a “reader” one is of one’s own life, actions, dispositions, etc.

John is concerned about the idea of approaching the Bible as a “blank slate” in order to receive biblical values because of the belief that we can’t do it well ourselves. Gregg views this as a very philosophically modernist perspective: the idea of trying to obtain a neutral, position-from-nowhere in order best to understand something. Gregg thinks that the closest example of this in Christianity are cases where people are essentially “born into” the Christian faith.

Yet Gregg also believes that we “come with” certain core values because of our background and experiences, not just our personality. Gregg sees the case for the Bible having input into our values by virtue of portraying humans as being certain types of beings, portraying God as being a certain types of beings, and to portray better (and even ideal) ways of relating between the two.

So the Bible writers describe humans as having certain needs and having certain tendencies, and some of these tendencies are not helpful (as not promoting human flourishing). So from Gregg’s perspective love and truth / truth and love are the quintessential elements of right relationality between humans and God. Further, in Gregg’s view human beings need proper relationship with God because this relationship allows us to be “most” ourselves or our “fullest” self, and to be in a mode of being that approximates “abundant living.” Yet each person also has their own “flourish” or “take” on this. So while Christians are to be Christ-like in character but fully themselves in personality.

So where John emphasizes the importance of our core values “helping us to live effectively” Gregg agrees, though he notes that his findings—both through his experience and through his study of the biblical texts—is that love and truth and what most help him to live “best.” As a result Gregg’s approach is to ask, how well does this particular orientation, value, etc. allow me to promote (and indeed, to maximize) truth and love / love and truth?

This is because Gregg sees “love and truth” as what a) maximizes our possibilities of living rightly in the world (and so we most value ourselves), and b) allows for the greatest possibilities of the greatest good (such as happiness, etc.) and c) is the basis for—and result of—right relationship with God.

John and Gregg finish by discussing the tension between truth/Truth and “truth-for-me.”

Three questions from Gregg’s questionnaire:

1) What are “core values”? List 1-3 of your own core values. What makes these particular values “core” for you?

2) Should Christians determine their core values from the Bible or establish them based on their life experience? How would you go about formulating an answer to this question?

3) How would one go about either determining biblical core values or establishing personal core values? Name one or two ways that your upbringing / background informs your answer.

Recognizing Our Own Deceit (138)

In this episode John and Gregg talk further about Gregg’s Sunday morning “Discussion Group.”

John wonders: How is the “back and forth” within the group affecting Gregg? Gregg notes that he is learning to pay attention to how some participants habitually “detract” from or even contradict his perspectives without actually engaging with the material, and to plan in advance for these types of responses.

Gregg also explains how, in past, he saw the church as a culture of trust (relative to Christianity / Christian beliefs) where he is more accustomed to working in cultures that are suspicious of Christianity / Christian beliefs.

Now he is coming to understand this church as also being a culture of naïveté and credulity (where “credulity” is an over-readiness to believe something or a willingness to believe on insufficient evidence and “naïveté” is the view that something is relatively free from complexity, and so is easy to understand and manage. The opposite is a culture of “sophistication,” where people are aware of the complexities inherent to their beliefs, and inherent when these beliefs interface with the other areas of their lives.

Gregg further notes that other participants seem uniformed about some basic aspects of their faith.  So Gregg is seeing a) the need to educate people on certain matters and b) how much his desire for dialogue makes his uncomfortable when he is forced to “push back hard” against those who are impose their views on the group without engaging with the discussion.

John returns to the topic of self-deceit, the focus of the Discussion Group, and wonders: How is self-deceit identified? In Gregg’s opinion self-deceit is not actually visible: we only see it through the “traces” it leaves. Further, self-deceit is not about disagreeing (with someone or something) but is failing to recognize something that is right in front of us for what it is. Specifically, we fail to recognize because we are aware, at whatever level, that the implications of recognizing would be frightening, threatening, or painful

John again wonders: How easily can self-deceit be taken to an extreme, such as a “radical distrust” based on our sinfulness. The exception John sees to this radical distrust is Bible-reading, which for many Christians plays out like Gregg’s “Magical Jesus.”

Gregg agrees that a gross excess of suspicion—and lack of trust—can be paralyzing, but in Gregg’s view unless Christians are aware of the fact that they can read the Bible in instrumental, self-serving ways, then this is not truly an awareness of self-deceit but of human incapability. Instead, evangelical Christians misplaces suspicion, which is the best tool for uncovering self-deceit, on “sins” that we are aware of and, by so doing, actually domesticates the very idea of sin!

So if Christians have problems with their Bible readings then it is not simply because they are lazy of lack “biblical literacy” but that, because people are “wired” toward self-deceit, it should be unsurprising that Christians read their Bibles in ways that validate the very practices that we claim to disavow (and we hide the truth of the matter from ourselves).

And as Gregg notes, the shocking thing is that people outside of the church can see this, even though the Christians within the church can’t! This is particularly the case where bible-readings driven by self-deceit become a normative practice within a church or, even, a standards of faithfulness.

John wonders: How does self-deceit occur for Gregg? Gregg finds a number of examples in his family life, such as when Gregg claims he can’t do something because he’s “too busy” when really it’s because he thinks that he’s too important. In Gregg’s view the best way to combat self-deceit is to become self-aware and to understand our propensity to be self-centered and self-serving.

For example, Gregg advocates counseling (though not “biblical counseling,” which he does not believe is a valid or helpful means of self-assessment), courses in anger management or communication, travel (and particularly living in a foreign culture), take inventories of one’s belief (why do I believe, what do I value about my beliefs, how do I know that my Bible-reading is incorrect, etc.). Lastly seek “neighboring perspectives,” such as seeking advice from practitioners of other denominations or even faiths. Gregg identifies all of these as de-centering practices.

Gregg highlights three areas in which we are more likely to be self-deceptive: when dealing with fears, with problems, or with enemies. So we wish to comforted in our fears, I want my life to convenient for me, and I want my adversaries accused and brought to justice (without facing justice myself).