Do We Write Our Own Story? (157)

In this podcast John and Gregg team up to discuss the notion that Gregg raised in Episode #153, where he rejects the idea that we “write our own stories.”

John finds the idea of writing one’s own story to be very important, to the point the we are “victims” if we do not.  Gregg wonders if he and John are using this term in the same way, despite the fact that John’s sense of the notion may be the more prevalent one.

On John’s view, the notion of writing one’s story is aspirational.  And one may not achieve what one is aspiring to.  Gregg notes that one’s story and one’s understanding of identity are closely related.

So Gregg is critical of cases where people use this notion of “writing one’s own story” to legitimate the full scope of their personal history.  In other words, he is critical of cases where people claim that the entirety of the events of their lives are good because these events have contributed to them being “where they are now.”

In other words, with this particular view of self-authoring there is only affirmation of one’s choices, actions, etc. and never critique!  Or, events and choices that run counter (or undermine) the current life story are often underplayed (if not ignored).  The result, as Gregg sees it, is these self-authored stories are almost always “counter factual.”  They contain (and sometimes promote) lies, and lies related to one’s identity.

Gregg explains his view of “narrative identity” as having and / or relying on three components:

  1. The events that took place in the past (history),
  2. The story that I have written, as an autobiography, about these past events and how I have acted—and suffered—through them (historiography),
  3. One’s “personal story,” which is the understanding of myself and my actions, goals, etc., in the present.

In Gregg’s view, he is not the only person who is (or should be) involved in the process of understanding his own “personal story.”  In fact, he recommends seeking critical feedback on how we have understood or interpreted events that are critical to our stories as a way of developing our skills at understanding (and indeed, loving) ourselves and others.

So in terms of our own, personal stories, Gregg argues that each of us is essentially trying to occupy “the narrator’s position:” to narrate our lives.  This is the closest that human being ever get to “writing” their own stories, and Gregg see narrating (rather than writing) our personal stories as more realistic because human beings both act and suffer.  In other words, despite our best intentions and abilities, we are not in control of how the story plays unfolds or finishes.

Based on the view of self-authoring that Gregg is criticizing, John notes that people seem to be adept at “letting themselves off the hook,” and wonders how Christianity combats this?

Gregg notes that Christianity highlights this fact by explaining how human beings are fallible, finite, and fallen.  Specifically, fallenness indicates that we are people who act in ways that undermine our own best interest, while claiming not to do so!  This amounts to the understanding that humans have a propensity toward self-deception.  From this notion, Gregg argues that we as human beings are not always the most trustworthy or best “directors” of their own lives.

John wonders: where does Gregg see the type of self-authoring that he is critical of?

Gregg explains that he sees this both among Christians and non-Christians, though he has experienced this most on the West coast (as a phenomenon that has been called “West coast spirituality”).  And the biggest problem that Gregg sees with it is that those holding such views have essentially immunized themselves against critique.  So a major theme in such story-telling is that people are telling themselves things like: “I’m a good person,” or “I do the things that God wants me to,” etc.

faith AND suspicion; belief AND scepticism (156)

This episode is the fourth of a four-part series where Gregg reads excerpts from—and comments on—an excellent  conversation that took place in the Untangling Christianity Facebook group.  All comments and names are used with permission of the authors.

In this podcast Gregg engages with Amy’s comments about “preaching the Word of God” and “sensing the the Holy Spirit’s movement.”  He notes that the “typical” evangelical response is one that focuses almost entirely on trust and belief.  Yet Gregg explains that belief and trust are not “biblical principles” in that neither one of them “stands alone” but, instead, each in fact represents one “pole” of a complimentary opposition (or a mutually-informing tension).

So in order best to engage with Amy’s comments he takes the approach of decreasing trust and belief and increasing suspicion and scepticism.  For example, Gregg is skeptical—that is, he doubts or finds it rather questionable or simply does not believe—that most Christians without exegetical training (and likely without a commentary in hand, in the pew) would know if a verse is being taken “in context” or not.  Similarly, Gregg is suspicious—that is, wary of false orientations and hidden motivations—about how Christians view humility.  Specifically, evangelical culture tends to value certain virtues (such as humility) more than other virtues (such as confidence).  Yet in my experience it is just as easy to hide unvirtuous motivations behind a veneer of humility as it is to misrepresent a confident person as “proud.”  Further, humility also is not a “Biblical principle” but, instead, confidence and humility are two poles within a “productive opposition” (or a necessary tension).  So both are equally valuable.

The point is that false humility is no worse than pride, but because it is harder to detect most Christians tend to favour and promote humility, rather than confidence, in any given situation.  Why?  Because it’s safer.  Which really means: because it takes less effort, both to claim humility and to prioritize it.  Yet when it comes to teaching the Bible, I don’t want someone who is humble for humility’s sake—I want someone who is duly confident!  That is, someone who has the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to do the job well and to be clear, level-headed and persuasive about what s/he believes (and why).

The result, then, of applying scepticism and suspicion to the typical, evangelical perspective is that what is typically taken as trustworthy can also (and legitimately) be seen to be problematic.  And what seemed like a good formulation to believe can also (and legitimately) be seen as a formulation that is questionable.

Gregg does not know what “preaching the Word of God” means, if it means anything more than “someone preaching a sermon and referencing the Bible.”  So instead of talking about “preaching God’s word,” Gregg advocates just talking about “good preaching.”  And this often prompts questions, such as “What do you mean by good?”  Such a presentation results in explanation of the matter at hand rather than demonstrating membership (and worse, doing so as if the topic were clear and uncomplicated, which he argues it certainly is not).

Similarly, Gregg has no sense of what constitutes “the movement of the Holy Spirit,” if it is anything more than “some way in which a person or people whose reliance upon God empowers them relative to their finitude, fallibility, and / or fallenness.”  In cases such as this, he believes that Christians would be well served by examining more closely the nuances and complexity of such matters as perceiving the Holy Spirit.

Finally, Gregg highlights how offering non-Christians theological (and thus theoretical) conclusion in the form of an explanation for what logically should be an existential (and therefore, a practical) response in the form of an example. is both terribly common and yet broadly misses the point.

And what is the point?

The point is that, both for non-Christians and for Christians, the only valid expression of the Christian faith is one that relates to, impacts upon, and is impacted by real life.

Instead, then, of offering a conclusion to non-Christians (which could be summed up as “the Bible is true and God is real” and implies, then, that the important part is understanding the right things—or getting the right “truth”), Christians need to offer truthful evidence that their claims are relevant and impactful for human existence.  Doing so requires Christians first to show how, and how much, the truths in the world around them inform their beliefs and how read the Bible (such that, by being broadly informed—by sound psychology, sociology, and philosophy—Christians actually do demonstrate living as their best selves and offer compelling, embodied examples of “full functioning”).

Problems with the Westminster Confession (155)

This episode is the third of a four-part series where Gregg reads excerpts from—and comments on—an excellent  conversation that took place in the Untangling Christianity Facebook group.  All comments and names are used with permission of the authors.

In this podcast Gregg explains his comments at the end of the previous episode, #154, where he explained that establishing the most appropriate, most productive relationships of dependence result in being one’s fullest and “best” self: being the most properly independent and also most functional version of myself, and so the happiest.

He notes a subtle but important difference between happiness (as the result of becoming “fully functioning” or becoming one’s “best self” and following St. Augustine’s work in De Beata Vita) and the formulation of the aim of Christianity prized by many Evangelicals, from the Westminster Confession Shorter Catechism, Article #1.  It states: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Gregg’s views the WCSC Article #1 to deviate significantly from the New Testament, which is remarkably clear: those who follow Jesus are to hold as their highest priority what he paraphrases as “loving God entirely,” and as their second priority “loving themselves rightly, and others likewise.”  In other words, the purpose of human existence is to be in a love relationship with God (based on truth) and to allow this truth-based love relationship to impact and flavour all other interactions and pursuits.

Gregg argues that the reason that the WCSC Article #1 fails to align with the Bible’s prioritization due to a skewed emphasis on one aspect of the Christian God’s nature and a corresponding under-representation—or de-valuing—of another, equally central and equally important aspect of the Christian God’s nature.

Simply stated, the Westminster Confession Shorter Catechism puts too much emphasis on God’s sovereignty, not enough emphasis on God’s fatherhood and parenthood.  By corollary, it puts too much emphasis on truth (and the importance of declaring, promoting, and defending that truth—hence the action of “Glorifying God”), not enough emphasis on love (and the necessity of receiving and give love—the state of being loved and in love with God, and allowing that mode of being to flavour and direct my actions).

Gregg sees at least three problems resulting from this skewed emphasis.

First, the WCSC #1 promotes not human enjoyment of relationship with God, with oneself, with others, and with the created order but the enjoyment of God alone, as though that is sufficient (and is what God intended, as if the created order were only an intermediate and temporary structure rather than a necessary reality).  But this is not in keeping with the focus of the biblical text: God gives every good thing for enjoyment (including ourselves!) and the created order is not to be superseded or abolished but renewed and remade when God’s kingdom is fully realized.

Second, Gregg believes that those who have an affinity for the WCSC’s viewpoint in Article #1 attempt to formulate the implications of this view more fully.  In other words, he offers a challenge to these people, to ask themselves: If I take “enjoyment of God” to be my chief goal, what effect should this “enjoyment of God” most likely produce?  In other words, what is the logical impact of any “enjoyment?”

The question is aimed at helping those who promote the Westminster Confession to consider whether the purpose of human existence is more an act or more an outcome, such as a state of being?  (This returns to Gregg’s comments equating “loving God entirely” with the state of being “loved and in love with God,” rather than loving being first an action).

On the Westminster Confession framing it is an act (even “enjoyment” is stated in the verbal form: “to enjoy God”).  This is an action.  From my perspective, while action is certainly involved the purpose of human existence is to achieve (or at least frequently experience) a state of being / state of mind, out of which our actions, thinking, and dispositions will necessarily be best oriented.  Further, I think that my framing the matter has the advantage of being supported and corroborated by a large body of scientific evidence (such as understandings in psychology and neurology, that show that how we perceive and experience the world is determinative for all of our engagement with the world).

Third, summarizing such massive concepts, while possible, must be done with both strict attention to one’s sources and with the understanding that summarization requires skilled and thoughtful formulation.  On the first count, Gregg argues that any summary of the primary “goal” (or as mentioned in #154, the primary “orientation”) of human beings according to the Christian faith requires a very close reading of the Bible’s own claims in this regard.  And the WCSC #1 seems to fail in this regard.

Concerning the need for “skilled and thoughtful formulation,” in Gregg’s view any attempt to summarize the primary goal or orientation of human beings relative to God (and the primary task that humans are to undertake in that regard) is much more than citing biblical passages or simply regurgitating their content.  Instead, a fully hermeneutical approach is required.  In other words, an approach that considers not only the biblical texts in terms of their immediate and broader contexts, but that also considers what it means for human beings to live life as a human being.

Gregg clarifies this approach in offering his reformulation of the primary orientation and task of humanity from the perspective of the Christian faith: “The primary ‘orientation’ of a human being is to love God entirely, love her or himself rightly, and to love others likewise, and that the primary ‘task’ of a human being is to enjoy living and enjoy becoming who one is meant to be: to enjoy the created order, to enjoy others, and to enjoy her or himself in the context of being in a relationship of dependent independence with God—that is, through being in a love relationship based on truth, with God, who both knows me more truly than I know myself and loves me more deeply than I love myself.”

Meeting Non-Christians Where They Are At (154)

In this episode Gregg continues his review of—and commentary on—a conversation that took place in the Untangling Christianity Facebook group.  NB: All comments have been quoted (and names mentioned) with permission.

As with the first podcast in this series, this podcast is likely to move faster be “denser” than most, and so re-listening to sections may be helpful.

The basic topic under discussion is whether Christians actually engage with non-Christians well (that is, in a way that is “on their terms” and that respects the views and understandings of non-Christians).  In particular, Gregg sees the role of interpretation as the overarching concern, as well as the necessity for life and faith to be fully and duly integrated.

So Gregg comments that “Hence my emphasis in the Integration Project on “real life” and insisting that the only Christianity that makes sense and that is worth holding is one where faith and life are related in a way that is truly and appropriately reciprocal.  In other words, where life informs faith just as faith informs life.  And where we read (or understand) the Bible in light of the world and read (or understand) the world in light of the Bible.  Theologically, this is about interpreting the most accurate relationship between salvation and creation—the one that best reflects both biblical and “real world” information sources by doing justice to both, in their own contexts and through their interaction.  And here I cite my mentor’s formulation: ‘creation frames salvation, salvation refigures creation’.”

One of the clearest indicators of the impact of truthfulness of Christianity and of God’s love upon us as Christians is our willingness to engage with the outsider on equal terms.  Particularly, this means listening to other party’s perspective well enough to be able to repeat it back to them to their satisfaction and ask questions that engage them about their views!

Further, this means figuring out the parts of my views that are problematic  (and how: irrational, unloving, excessive, etc.) to others.  This is done by:

  1. Active listening.
  2. Holding their beliefs to be as valuable as my own.
  3. Drawing out the real strength in their arguments.
  4. Wanting to learn as much as I can from whomever I am speaking with or listening to.

The above dispositions and skills manifest in our conversations by the ability (and sensitivity) of Christians to ask productive questions.  Here are some examples of productive questions (questions that, ironically, Gregg never hears Christians ask of non-Christians):

  1. If there was one thing that you wish that Christians knew or understood better about non-Christians, or you wish that I understood about you and your perspective, what would that be?
  2. If you could change one thing about Christianity, what would that one thing be?
  3. What about that thing is important to you / what about it needs changing?
  4. If you have a positive thought about God or the idea of a divine being, what the most positive thought that you often have?
  5. If you have negative thoughts about God or the idea of a divine being, what is the most negative thought that you often have?
  6. What do you believe a constructive, valuable conversation about personal beliefs would look like?

Gregg finishes by noting the primacy of the “greatest commandment” and how its result is human happiness (which both follows Augustine’s thinking in De Beata Vita and is the focus of the Integration Project, where such happiness is the result of becoming “fully functioning” or becoming my “best self” through loving God entirely, loving myself rightly, and loving others likewise).  Yet he explains that many Christians have been taught that their “chief aim” is something different, namely “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

The next podcast in this series examines the Westminster Confession Shorter Catechism Article #1, where Gregg argues for a subtle but important difference between focusing on happiness (as the result of becoming “fully functioning” or becoming my “best self”), which occurs as a result of being in right relationship with God, with myself, with others and with my world and aiming “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” as one’s top priority.

Understanding Non-Christians Starts With Them (153)

In this episode Gregg summarizes–and responds to–an interesting conversation that took place in the Untangling Christianity Facebook group in mid-September.   NB: all comments have been quoted (and names mentioned) with permission.

Gregg begins by indicating that this podcast is likely to move faster be “denser” than most, and so re-listening to sections may be necessary.

The basic topic under discussion is whether Christians actually engage with non-Christians well (that is, in a way that is “on their terms” and that respects the views and understandings of non-Christians).

After reading portions of his interaction with Amy, Gregg reads the main parts of an exchange between Amy and Anna. Gregg comments on a number of aspects of the conversation.  Particularly, he remarks on the need for such conversations to be sustained in order for participants to gain deeper insights and greater clarity (“sustained” in terms of engaging with a variety of related sub-topics that contribute to the assumptions held by many Christians regarding the main topic, and clarifying these assumptions and / or debunking false understandings, as necessary).

This podcast represents the first in a series of three that summarize–and respond to–this conversation in the Untangling Christianity Facebook group.