The Gospel and Capitalism – Daniel Bell

What do you think of this quote from Daniel Bell, Divinations: theo-politics in an age of terror (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017) on how the gospel confronts and overcomes capitalism?

 

Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.

This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.

An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.

A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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What do you hope for?: why Christianity is eschatology and why it matters

If one scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri raises questions of what it means to die well, another asks a profoundly important question.

It comes in one of the very rare tender moments when Mildred, planting tubs of flowers under the billboards looks up to see a deer standing quietly in front of her.

3 billboards deer

Normally guarded and combative, Mildred softens and shares her heart with the deer. She wonders aloud ..

Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not.

In one sentence we have:

  • the reality of evil (the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter)
  • the posited non-existence of God
  • the meaninglessness of existence if God is a fictional idea
  • a consequential absence of justice where evil goes unpunished

This little soliloquy faces head on a problem all of us face in one way or another – whether Christian or not. How to make sense of the reality of the world we live in?

A world about which, in these days of global communication, we know too much. The suffering of the planet fills our screens on a daily basis. This is a world where, as NT scholar Richard Hays puts it,

history continues its grinding litany of human atrocities, and we see no compelling evidence that God is answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).

One response is to agree with Mildred’s question and face the implications head-on. So what if the universe is bleak, cold and empty? So what if there is no transcendent and good God? So what if notions of fairness and justice are fantasies? So what if nothing we do, for good or ill, has any enduring consequence beyond this life? Just get on with life as best you can. Find meaning where you can – whether in hedonism, materialism, relationships, power, experiences etc

Mildred’s question is a very 21st Century one. The 20th did a very good job of destroying centuries of Enlightenment optimism about human progress and the power of reason.  World wars, the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the Cold War and an exploding world population competing for scarce resources sort of does that to utopian progressivism.

Add to that developments in the 21st Century of a mounting ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, neo-liberal fueled economic crashes, and the development of artificial intelligence where robots may soon threaten millions of jobs – and you have the seeds of a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-progressivism that does not hope for the future to be better than the present.

As with Mildred’s first sentence – we are on our own and making a mess of things. And that is not a very comforting thought.

All this makes her second sentence all the more interesting.

‘I hope not’.

Now those three words are perhaps vague wish-fulfillment, but they express a longing for hope beyond the injustices and pain of this world.

What might a pastor have said to Mildred if sitting beside her, surrounded by the flowers planted in memory of her daughter? (and what follows is not a suggested counselling conversation!)

First, perhaps that she is exactly right. Dale Allison, a NT scholar, puts it this way,

… Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying … If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Second, here is exactly where Christianity says ‘Yes, there is hope’. And this hope speaks into the realities of suffering and death. It is not a vague hope that things will get better. It is grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Richard Hays, says this

The church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about suffering and death. The New Testament’s vision of a final resurrection of the dead enables us to tell the truth about the present, including its tragedies and injustices, without sentimental sugar-coating, without cynicism or despair. It allows us to name suffering and death as real and evil, but not final.

Christian hope is not ‘going to heaven when I die’, but a realistic hope that faces death head-on. Hays again – this time about Paul in Thessalonians

The striking thing is that Paul does not seek to comfort the grieving bereaved Thessalonians by telling them that their loved ones are already in heaven with Jesus. He acknowledges that the dead are dead and buried. The apocalyptic hope is that in the resurrection they will be reunited with the living in the new world brought into being at Christ’s return. These are the words with which Christians are to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18). These same considerations apply on a larger scale to Christian theology’s reflection about the terrible tragedies that violent human cultures bring upon the world. In the face of mass murders, non-apocalyptic theology is singularly trivial and helpless.

In other words, Christianity is eschatology. It is nothing without the future hope of resurrection, of God’s justice being done and that one day death, pain and grief will be swallowed up in a glorious new creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-4).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] The Allison and Hays quotes are taken from Richard Hays, ‘”Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” New Testament Eschatology at the turn of the Millennium.’ Modern Theology 16:1 January 2000

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love

SPOILERS AHEAD

Photo: Merrick Morton / AP

I went to see Martin McDonagh’s latest in the best cinema in Dublin (The Lighthouse) with some good company who are also good critics.

This isn’t a review – there are far better reviewers than me out there who can be read with a couple of clicks. It is a reflection on one particular scene in what is a pitch-black look at life, death and hate in small town Missouri.

McDonagh’s dialogue is brilliant, profane, darkly funny and utterly depressing all at once. Someone I was with said she’s seen the film a few days before and the audience in Belfast laughed throughout. There was hardly a peep in Dublin … the tragedy trumped any comedy it seems. Now what to make of that inversion of caricatures of dour sober-sided northerners and fun-loving southerners?!

I digress. Here’s why this post.

Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and has months to live. Much is made of how he is practically the only main character who is not in some way consumed by hate and bitterness. His nemesis is Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a scorching performance as a mother engulfed with grief and driven by rage at her daughter’s killer, the police, her violent ex-husband and very possibly herself.

Compared to her, Willoughby is a saint. He’s done his best on her daughter’s case but has no leads. He’s an older husband to his picture-perfect young wife Anne (at least 20 years his junior, over the top on the schmaltz here) and a doting dad to two lovely young daughters. There is time given to an idyllic family picnic; of the girls left to play a fun game set up by their dad beside a lake while their parents sneak off to make love (one last time as it turns out).

Willoughby (as we later learn) shows remarkable grace to, and belief in, Sam Rockwell’s vicious racist, homophobic and stupid policeman by writing him a letter (they must still do that in Ebbing Missouri) telling him (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that he is at heart a good man who needs to learn to love rather than hate. He also makes peace with Mildred despite her hounding of him in the in final weeks of his life (the three billboards of the film’s title ask why Willoughby has made no arrests for the murder and rape of her daughter). He writes her a letter too, hoping she catches the killer and regretting that he was not able to. He even pays for her three Billboards for another month.

I mention all of this because it sets Willoughby up in maximum sympathetic terms. Which all goes to make the scene which follows all the more horrible. After writing a third and final letter – this time to his wife after their day at the lake – he goes out to the stables, puts a black bag over his head, and shoots himself in the head. A message for Anne is written on the bag – something like don’t look, and call the boys at the station.

The letter to Anne is voiced by Harrelson. In it he explains why he has killed himself. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he won’t have her watching him waste away and die a slow death. He wants to spare her that. He acknowledges she may hate him but he hopes only for a while. In time, he hopes she will come to see it was the best thing. The tone is tender and loving.

I gotta say I detested this scene. It made me feel sick. It was not only manipulative and fake, but the whole narrative arc was set to make Willoughby’s suicide a heroic act of love, wanting to spare his wife and children suffering. The note on the bag was obscene – as if it was one last act of kindness. Yet she still finds a bloodied corpse of her husband with his brains on the stable floor – an executioners bag over his head hardly makes a difference to the brutality of the act.

In Ireland, rates of suicide, especially in young men, are shocking. The impact is devastating. Somehow it is seen as ‘a way out’ of a hopeless future. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri plays right into that destructive narrative by dressing up suicide as a brave act of altruistic love.

Yes I know it is a film. Yes, it is ‘just’ telling a story and it is not necessarily ‘endorsing’ or promoting suicide. Yes, it shows the subsequent agony of Anne who asks ‘What are you supposed to do the day after your husband shoots himself?’ Yes, it advances the plot, because it raises the question in the public mind of whether Mildred’s billboards drove him to take his own life.

But, for me, McDonagh’s script glorifies suicide. The context portrays Willoughby as beyond reproach. He is not mentally disturbed or depressed. He calmly and almost naturally takes his own life, as if it was an obvious next step. The reading of the three letters after his death all portray him as noble.

Yet his supposed act of kindness was one of the most aggressive and violent scenes in a very aggressive and violent movie. Anne is left not only not knowing what to do for one day, but for the rest of her life as the widow of husband who blew his brains out. His children are left with the trauma of a daddy who killed himself. His suicide robbed them all of the time to love him, care for him and be with him when he died. To say goodbye and grieve with dignity. It left them victims of a violent crime. It was far from a loving, kind, considerate act.

I have known someone die from pancreatic cancer. It was awful but that person died with joy, faith and love, surrounded by family and friends. The Christian funeral was suffused with hope and thanksgiving for a life well lived. Pancreatic cancer, and the death it caused, did not, and does not, have the last word. There was no need either to play God by taking life, or grimly clinging on to life at all costs.

I hope, that when I die, I can do so with a little bit of that person’s faith in the God of life.

In other words, to be able to trust that dying is not the worst thing in the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

An essay on why Jordan Peterson is worth listening to

img_9823-1024x683Time to come out. For most of a year now I have been watching many of the University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s large collection of You Tube lectures and videos. I’d never heard of the guy until a year ago but such lack of awareness is becoming harder to achieve as his popularity and influence continue to grow.  His new book is bound to be a best seller.

It’s been hard to miss the massive kerfuffle arising from his first visit to the UK last week and particularly the car crash of an interview of Peterson by Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news which you can watch in full. It is worth reading Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic for an analysis of the interview. I think it should become a classic in teaching journalists how NOT to interview someone.

This post isn’t going to add to that noise. Rather, I want to reflect on what lessons can be learned from Peterson. Not just in the sense of ‘Why is he so popular?’ (popularity per se, as Trump has shown, is scarcely an indication of moral or intellectual virtue). But instead asking what can be learnt from both what he is saying and how he is saying it.

In a terrific article, written just before ‘that’ interview, Douglas Murray of The Spectator makes this point

Today, for at least one generation, … Peterson … has become a mixture of philosopher, life-coach, educator and guru. He has the kind of passionate, youthful, pedagogical draw that the organised churches can only dream of. Anybody interested in our current culture wars, not to mention the ongoing place of religion, should head to YouTube, where his classes have been viewed by millions.

He concludes his article with this rather remarkable statement for a journalist

‘What was that?’ asked an old friend I bumped into on the way out. Hundreds of young people were still queueing to get books signed. Others stood around buzzing with the thrill of what we had heard. I still don’t have an answer. But it was wonderful.

Caricatures

When I’ve told some friends about Peterson I’ve been warned that he is ‘extreme’ or a voice somehow supportive of the American alt-right. Such warnings baffled me because I had ‘got to know’ Peterson well through his own material before hearing of his supposed right wing reputation. I stay away from You Tube comments (mostly toxic) and don’t do social media. So they made no sense at all then – and still don’t.

It was manifestly apparent that Cathy Newman had this sort of ill-researched preconceived cartoon-strip image of Peterson as some sort of apologist for Patriarchy. It kept getting in the way of her actually listening to what he was saying. She was literally left speechless because the reality didn’t conform to the caricature. She, and the Channel 4 team, had not done their journalistic homework (or, worse, maybe they had and decided to try to do a hatchet job anyway). It was remarkable to watch such a blundering ideologically-driven binary approach to a potentially interesting conversation.

What is he saying?

This is a big question because, as he says himself, he talks a lot, often too much and often at speed. He also covers a lot of ground from psychology, to philosophy, to men and women, to the Bible, to politics, to the world of work and freedom of speech. What follows is a snap-shot, drawn from listening to Peterson over the last year.

And the fact that what he is saying is now seen as ‘provocative’ or ‘radical’ or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘extreme’ says more about a contemporary culture of relativism and victimhood than it does about Peterson. Finding out more about his ‘reputation’, I have had to keep asking myself, ‘am I missing something?’. ‘Is this guy a member of some secret right-wing network?’ For I can’t see the evidence in his academic lectures, written material or You Tube videos.

1. Individual responsibility

Sort out your own life before criticising the world. Clean your room – literally and metaphorically. Make a plan. Stand up straight and face the world. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. Take responsibility for what you can influence – mainly yourself. And, in very Stanley Hauerwas type language, tell the truth.

2. Meaning and significance matters

Read great authors – make them your friends. Get beyond the superficial narcissism of much modern culture and think about questions of meaning and purpose. Don’t buy into postmodern relativism and pessimism. Make a difference for good in the world. Values, integrity and hope matters.

Peterson has developed an entire lecture series on meaning within the Bible. He sees it as foundational to the Western tradition, containing mythic truths that describe the reality of our world and the human condition. The individual finds purpose in something greater, outside of themselves. He seeks to live as if God exists. Tim Lott in The Guardian puts it very well.

Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

It is doubtful to me that Peterson is Christian in any creedal orthodox understanding of that term, but that is not the point of this post.

3. Freedom of speech

Peterson shot to ‘fame’ by accident by stating, ahead of time, that he would not use speech compelled by an impending Canadian law, Bill C-16. Now law, it makes it compulsory for federal subjects – widened by most provinces to include personal and commercial interactions – to call transgender people by their preferred pronoun. This was an unlikely Lutheran ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ moment, but that’s what it turned out to be.

Any fair-minded observer would see that to call Peterson ‘transphobic’ or ‘homophobic’ is just being malicious. His consistent point is one of freedom of speech, standing against the right of the State to compel him to use certain words. His argument is that a free society has to have room for disagreement and offending others without the law intervening, and for the state to do so is fascistic.

4. Libertarian individualism

Linked to iii, Peterson calls himself a classic liberal. He is into empowering the individual – including many women it should be said (another point of surprise to Cathy Newman). Society is stronger the freer it is. Those that seek to control and manipulate through law, oppression, shame, and political bullying are enemies of freedom. Respect is earned and cannot be demanded. He is resistant to a contemporary culture of offence. It simply masks a power play to silence those with whom we disagree. It stifles debate and creates a climate of fear

5. Psychological well-being

I’ve hugely enjoyed his online lectures on psychology and philosophy. I’m not qualified enough critically to assess his approach, I suspect it veers towards behaviouralist. But, on a wider canvas, his lectures, clinical practice and now popularised book (12 Rules for Life) show a passion to enable mental and social well-being. It is here, perhaps that Peterson’s main appeal lies. He is intensely practical in giving advice, backed up by academic research and mainly to young people, on how to negotiate an increasingly complex and uncertain world. The Newman interview closes with him mentioning that he had received 25,000 letters in the last 6 months from people saying he had helped transform their lives. Whatever you think of Peterson, that is an astonishing claim worth serious reflection – another missed opportunity in the interview. Something is going on here and you would hope a journalist would be interested to investigate.

6. Understanding yourself

Peterson uses the ‘big five’ personality test – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It is one of many such tests. Our family enjoys taking them – not sure what that says about us! The big five is a very useful tool, we had fun doing it and comparing results. Peterson himself is very high on openness. The test says “high scorers tend to be creative, adventurous and intellectual. They enjoy playing with ideas and discovering novel experiences.” They tend to be unconventional and artistic. This is a long way from ideological group-think and may help explain why Peterson despises attempts to control and enforce behaviour whether from the left or the right.

7. Gender difference matters

It’s on gender that Peterson is seen as most provocative. But again he is quite careful and nuanced in what he says. Bottom line – men and women are not the same. It is not, as some conservative Christian commentators try to extrapolate, that there is a list of particularly ‘manly’ virtues (there is neither the data or a biblical foundation for such a claim). That is to generalise far too far. But the data, Peterson argues, is clear that, for example, women tend to be higher on agreeableness (tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to cooperate rather than compete with others) and on conscientiousness (self-discipline and control in order to meet goals). These are general tendencies, the differences are not great. They cannot be reduced down to individual cases.

One of his points is that differences between the genders cannot be reduced down to a single cause – say patriarchy. So, once patriarchy is overcome, full equality will follow. But in the most radically equal societies on earth (Scandinavia) data shows that given a relatively equal playing field, men and women make markedly different life choices regarding types of work (e.g. nursing and engineering). Against expectations, the gender gap actually widens rather than narrows. This strongly suggests inherent male / female difference, rather than simply being due to one all-embracing cause like ‘patriarchal culture’. One implication is that the current drive for full equality in the workforce is driving by unrealistic and mistaken assumptions. (For example, a friend of mine in an engineering firm has been given the target to achieve a 50-50 gender balance by xxxx date. But the task is proving far more difficult to implement than to set).

And it’s worth noting what he does not say – he does not defend unequal pay for the same work; he does not defend discrimination against women – he wants to see women empowered and successful; he does not say patriarchy is a good thing; he does not say women are in any way inferior to men or less intelligent.

He does say that there are only two genders, regardless of those who say gender is simply a social construct that can be chosen at will. Such social engineering is ideological dogma, biologically incoherent and psychologically and socially destructive.

8. The crisis facing men

Another area that Peterson has tapped into the zeitgeist is the crisis facing young men. Many men are not doing well – they are dropping out of school and university; they are withdrawing from the humanities; and rates of male suicide are truly catastrophic. The reasons are complex, but Peterson seems to be on to something in giving young men a challenge. Most of his online audience is male (although it is true that a lot of things online are mostly male). He treats young people with dignity and respect. He calls them to acts of meaning and courage. He rejects destructive cultural assumptions that young men by default are an insidious danger to a civilised society and that Western society is inherently patriarchal and oppressive. He believes that people can be responsible and free.

9. Realistic anthropology

Peterson is at his most Calvinist when it comes to human nature. In contrast to a naïve optimism that we are all essentially rational and good and just need to be given equal opportunity in life for justice to flourish, Peterson the psychologist tells us that we are a mess of competing desires, irrational decisions and damaging behaviour. We need to understand this truth about ourselves. We are all capable of being monsters. (Getting back to those toxic comments on You Tube, just look at what apparent anonymity does to people commenting on the internet for example).  The challenge is not to allow the monster control. Overcome it by choosing the light, living ethically, with courage and purpose. Happiness might come and go as a side-effect, but to pursue it is a delusion. Of far more importance is taking responsibility for our own lives.

10. Family and Social Capital

Again in psychologist mode, Peterson has a lot to say about the importance of friendship, family and the value of marriage. Marriage is not, as much modern romanticism has it, the ultimate source of individual ‘happiness’. It is a commitment to another person through which family emerges. We are social beings who need close relationships. I haven’t heard him talk of marriage in religious terms, but there are strong parallels to a Christian view of marriage as covenant love in which context children are born and raised. He does sound utilitarian at times in how choosing not to have children is to store up a relationally barren old age.

11. Thankfulness

From time to time Peterson observes how much modern political activism is relentlessly thankless. Despite living in relative wealth within the most advanced, equal and technologically advanced cultures in human history, there is a narrative of failure, oppression, injustice and victimhood. This fails to balance and be thankful for the extraordinary achievements of the West – by both men and women.

How is he saying it?

OK, if that is a summary of some of the sorts of things Peterson is saying, what about how he is saying it? It is here, I think, that his real appeal lies.

1. Love of learning

I mentioned earlier that being high in Openness means delighting in ideas. This comes through in Peterson’s lectures which are freewheeling enthusiastic monologues (whether monologues are the best form of teaching is a whole other debate). He is captivated by the transformative power of ideas to change the individual. And an associated abhorrence of ideology and identity politics.

In teaching, perhaps the most important quality of good communication, and subsequent student learning, is that the subject matter has first enthralled the teacher. There is nothing worse than a teacher bored by his or her own material. And there is nothing better than a teacher in love with their subject, overflowing with energy to pass that learning on to others. A personal example, thirty plus years after being taught the Gospel of Matthew by Dick France I sure don’t remember all the details of what he said, but I do remember his infectious love of the text and delight in passing that on to others.

2. Scientific method

As a clinical psychologist, Peterson utilises a lot of scientific data in developing hypotheses that interpret that data. Now, ever since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we should be aware that the way science works is not a nice and neat objective process. All sorts of variables are in play, including chance, personal and corporate agendas and so on. Assorted scientists can interpret the same data in quite different ways. But this does not invalidate the scientific process. It just means that hypotheses – and any claims arising out of them – need continual critical examination. I am not in a position to do this with Peterson’s use of science, but others are. He seems to be a serious and respected figure, widely published and peer reviewed and teaching in a major public university. In the past he taught at Harvard.

The point in saying this is that Peterson is engaging a young, well-educated and critical audience. He is not dumbing down, nor is he expecting them to believe assertions and personal opinions. He is, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, following the evidence to where it leads. If that means contradicting what he sees as ill-founded assertions of gender constructivism or identity politics or right wing nationalism, then let the dice fall where they will.

3. Respect of opponents

For me, one of the most impressive things about Peterson is the way he engages opponents. Watching him being baited by student ‘social justice warriors’ outside the University of Toronto was to witness exasperation and despair at their utter failure (and inability?) to engage in rational discussion. But that exasperation did not turn to bitter sarcasm. He genuinely wanted to discuss the issues and try to change minds. In the University of Toronto ‘debate’ with opposing colleagues on his position on Bill C-16, Peterson emerged as the one more interested in freedom of speech as opposed to shrill restatements of entrenched ideology. Similarly, with Cathy Newman, Peterson maintained composure, humour and grace despite being interrupted and almost comically misrepresented at practically every turn. He engaged her own willingness to offend him in positive terms – ‘good for you’ – stumping her in a good humoured way.

4. Empowering others

Some things are hard to fake. Another attractive feature of Peterson’s persona is what seems a genuine desire to empower and equip others for their own good. This comes through in his classes, in his clinical psychology and in Q & A with young people. Whether you agree with him or not, there is a passion to enable others negotiate the complexities of life as successfully as they can. Whether that means working with women not to be taken advantage of in the workplace or helping someone out of a cycle of depression, it speaks of an other-centeredness that is admirable.

5. Vulnerability and integrity

Peterson gives plenty of advice on relationships, work and success in life in general, often in strongly directional terms. Anyone doing so in a public space (whether a clinical psychologist or a Pastor or a self-help guru) is justifiably opening up their own lives to examination – does he or she practice what they preach? There is a need for (appropriate) transparency here. Of course, the reality can be hidden and often is. But with Peterson you do not get the sense that there is a mismatch. He shows critical self-awareness (on the Dave Rubin show, when asked, he listed things like over-work, talking too much, a potential addiction to alcohol etc etc). He talks about his wife and family in moving terms, deeply grateful for their love, support and presence in his life.

6. Language

There is a compelling attraction and power to language used creatively to express complex ideas. It is a rare gift and Peterson, I think, has it. Listening to his lectures is, for me anyway, a pleasure. Of course, such a gift can be used for good or ill. In general, Peterson is constructive rather than destructive. He values words. At one point, he said to Newman, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.”

7. Courage

Whatever you think of Peterson’s beliefs, it is hard not to admire a person who has the courage of his convictions. He took a serious personal and professional risk in speaking out against Bill C-16. He was warned he could lose his job, was threatened with bankruptcy by the potential costs of a court process and found himself at the centre of a storm of abuse and vilification. His health suffered under the stress. He has said he will never use compelled speech even if that means going to jail – where he has claimed he will go on hunger-strike. You might think this is over-dramatic, but it is rare these days to find conviction in public life that comes with a tangible personal cost.

Concluding Clarifications and further issues

A couple of points of clarification. These are simply my takes on Peterson and as such are subjective observations that may well misrepresent things in some way. Neither do they mean I am an uncritical fan. I am trying to unpack why and how he has become an iconic cultural figure.

While there are obvious parallels to themes of Christian belief, it would take further posts to analyse and reflect critically on the theological content of Peterson’s worldview. It would also take further posts to consider what, if any, lessons can be learnt from Peterson by churches who have a heart to communicate the breadth and depth of the Christian faith to young people today.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’?

Quite a few people think the answer to the title question is YES.

Alwyn Thomson makes the case with typical incisive analysis in a post at PS at Contemporary Christianity’s website

The word ‘evangelical’, he argues, is now theologically almost meaningless. Evangelicalism as a movement has undermined the church. And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.

Alwyn knows what he’s talking about. When research officer for Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) he developed a lot of excellent material on evangelical identity, politics and theology, and now he lives in the USA.

In America, Christianity Today is asking the same question. Scot McKnight has argued that the word is so compromised politically that it is time to give it up.

The issue is politics; the presenting painful reality is Trump. The reality is 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. The word “evangelical” now means Trump-voter. The word “evangelical” is spoiled …

… Which now means evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump …

… Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won.

Let the political evangelicals have the term …

…. The one thing I despise about Christianity in the USA is its aligning with a political party. Mainliners have done it; they’re Democrats. Evangelicals have followed suit; they’re Republicans. Politicization is accomplished.

Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.

Others, like Roger Olson, know well the difficulties associated with the word but refuse to let bad use take away right use.

Here in Ireland, evangelicals are so tiny that the vast majority of people have little or no idea what the word stands for. If they do, it is probably something like one of the following ..

  • zealous for something: ‘She was almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for sushi.’
  • fundamentalist: ‘ISIS are the evangelicals of the Muslim world’ (I heard this said by an Irish reporter on radio)
  • Intolerant, obscurantist, right-wing, Trump supporters
  • Conservative reactionaries against the emerging liberal new Ireland, particularly on sex and gender issues.

None of which are exactly complimentary definitions.

If the heartbeat of evangelicalism is an ethos that feels something like this then I don’t want to give up what it describes:

  1. A love for the Bible leading to personal transformation
  2. An emphasis on repentance and faith
  3. A focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible
  4. Activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity
  5. And a Christ-centered faith that issues in discipleship, obedience and good works empowered by the Spirit

And, as I’ve posted about before, this sort of evangelicalism alive and well in countless individuals’ lives across the globe.

But what to call it?

Is the word ‘evangelical’ necessary in order to describe such faith? Is it fatally compromised – mostly by an American fusion of religion and politics that has global consequences?

If we answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to these two questions then we need to find a different way of talking about who John Stott called ‘Bible people’ and ‘Gospel people’. Whether just ‘Christian’ or something else.

In my Irish context, it’s not a word that is very helpful. Trump and American Republican co-opting of the term plays a part, but there are other historical factors at play too. So I have no great objection to dropping it.

Or should the majority world evangelical movement – as defined by the Cape Town Commitment for example – resist being defined by the ugly politicization of what is only a relatively small sector of the global evangelical family? Can the word ‘evangelical’ be redeemed?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A Christmas 2017 reflection: four stories

The Gospels are richly theological accounts of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. They are, in other words, not only telling us ‘what happened’ but also why it happened.

Think of it this way:

The Gospels tell us all about ‘the story of Jesus’. That story, of course, begins with the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas.

But the story of Jesus only makes sense if set within 3 other broader stories that, together, frame the story of the Bible.

The story of Jesus is the innermost or climatic story of the 4.  We need to appreciate how it fits within the wider framework if we are to understand the ‘why’ of the incarnation.

  1. THE STORY OF GOD

At the broadest level, there is the ‘Story of God’ himself. This story encompasses all the others for the Bible is, in effect, the story of God ‘s redemptive action in the world in response to sin, death and rebellion.

That response is trinitarian: Father, Son and Spirit, working in love to bring life, forgiveness, restoration – to form a covenant people bearing his image and to redeem all of creation.

2. THE STORY OF THE WORLD 

The second story is of the world we live in – a world of beauty and of ugliness; of hope and despair; of love and of hate. A wonderful, awe-inspiring creation disfigured by sin, death, grief and injustice. It is God’s love for this world that is the divine motive for the incarnation.

3. THE STORY OF ISRAEL

But before the incarnation of the Son, we must not skip the third story – the story of God’s elect people through whom salvation comes. So much Christian theology tends to do this – to jump from creation and fall to the coming of the Christ. The Old Testament takes up most of the story for a purpose! The story of Christmas only makes sense within the story of Israel. Jesus is first Israel’s Messiah – who is also the saviour of the world.

4. THE STORY OF JESUS

This is the story that, in effect, is the focus of the entire New Testament. The Gospels and the rest of the NT is a theological explanation of the story of Jesus (Christology) in light of the story of Israel, the story of the world gone wrong and the story of God. Pretty well every page of the NT is this sort of dialogue being worked out in hundreds of different ways. Jesus fulfils the Story of Israel. Father, Son and Spirit together work to effect salvation.

It is the story of Jesus and the Spirit that broadens the story of Israel to welcome in the Gentiles. It is in Jesus’ death that victory is won over all forces that oppose God’s good purposes – sin, death, the Devil and the powers.

THIS CHRISTMAS

But, most relevantly for this Christmas week, it is in the story of Jesus that we see who God is most clearly revealed. See how the four stories are interwoven in Colossians 1. 1-15 and especially its focus on the unique identity and authority of the Son.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

So, this Christmas we celebrate the Lord of creation, in whom dwells all the fullness of God himself, come to earth as a real man who can shed real blood. No greater act of self-giving love is possible to conceive.

And in doing so, we look forward to Easter, for it is this God-man who dies on the cruel wood of a Roman cross to bring reconciliation and peace to this world and all of creation.

So, whatever your circumstances this Christmas, may these four inter-connected stories give you joy, thankfulness and hope. For being a Christian, is to join our own story in with the story of God (by God’s grace), the story of the world gone wrong (owning our own sin), the story of Israel (a Christian becomes a member of the new covenant people of God) and the story of Jesus (by turning to him in faith and repentance).

Best wishes for a joyful and peaceful Christmas!

 

 

Putting the Golden Rule into Practice: Musings on Luke 6 and Queer Theology

Ok this post may stray into warmish waters but it is a sincere attempt to get at the cutting edge of what Jesus is saying in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. If there isn’t an edge to application from that radical Sermon then we’ve quite simply missed its core.

These are questions coming out of two areas of reading and teaching I am doing at the moment

  1. Love in Luke 6
  2. Queer Theology

This post has three parts.

  1. What is the core principle within the Golden Rule?
  2. What or who is a contemporary example of the ‘Other’?
  3. What does it mean to apply the Golden Rule in regard to Queer Theology?
  1. What is the Core Principle within the Golden Rule?

Luke 6 contains what has become known as the ‘Golden Rule’ –

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

In the verses that follow, Jesus repeats the phrase ‘what credit is that to you?’ three times. His point in each case revolves around the identity of those ‘Others’. The whole point is that ‘they’ are NOT like ‘us’.

There is no ‘credit’ in safe and easy love of those ‘like us’ – the people we feel comfortable around and like to hang out with.  You know, people who share our values, faith, sense of humour, probably of similar socio-economic background, education, likely skin colour, maybe age – and mostly likely heterosexuality.

Such ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ love costs us little. ‘Love for those that love us’ is just typical human behaviour; it is fairly unremarkable. This is Jesus’ point about ‘even sinners do that’. In other words, those outside the kingdom of God love like this, so there is nothing particularly credit worthy and exceptional if disciples love each other in this way. It is to be expected.

However, there is, it is implied, ‘credit’ in loving people NOT like us. That is distinctive and rare because it does not make ‘natural’ sense. This sort of love is not to be expected.

Given the context of the sermon, the ‘Other’ is not just different to ‘us’, but is opposed to us in some way (enemy love begins and closes the main part of the Sermon vv 27-36)

That opposition is not necessarily personal, but holds opposing beliefs and values that perhaps stand in sharp conflict with some of our own deepest commitments.

So – who is NOT like you? And is opposed to you in some way?

  1. Queer Theology as a contemporary example of the ‘Other’

The opposing ‘Other’ could take many forms. Bitter divisions of course exist around areas of political, racial and religious commitments and identities. But the area I’m focusing on in this post is sexual identity.

What does it mean to ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ where the ‘Other’ is articulating a theology of sex and identity that is deeply at odds with orthodox Christian teaching?

To be more specific – what does it mean for evangelical Christians (since this is the community to which I belong) to love the ‘Other’ where the ‘Other’ is committed to Queer Theology?  (I am deliberately focusing on a theology rather than a person. These are musings on general principles on how Jesus’ teaching applies in a contemporary situation. I don’t want to make it personal).

So a definition is needed at this point. What is Queer Theology?

Cheng Radical LoveAn entry route is Patrick Cheng, Radical Love: an introduction to Queer Theology. In it Cheng claims that

“Christian theology itself is a fundamentally queer enterprise because it . . . challenges and deconstructs—through radical love—all kinds of binary categories that on the surface seem fixed and unchangeable . . . but that ultimately are fluid and malleable.” (10)

This quote captures the essence of Queer Theology’s agenda. It is to shake up or ‘queer’ accepted ‘norms’, particularly around gender and sexuality. All sexual identities are constructed, nothing is fixed or ‘normal’. Whatever sexual identity someone has (and it can be fluid and changing) it is a ‘gift’ – to be welcomed, expressed and affirmed. ‘Radical Love’ is to accept this dissolving of boundaries.

Traditional religion, with its commitment to the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality is exclusionary and coercive and oppressive. Queer Theology is therefore a type of liberation theology, ‘on the side’ of the marginalised LGBT+ communities.

In his book, Cheng proposes a Queer Theology around systematic categories of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also talks of a queer reading of Scripture.

The results are very radical indeed:

  • The Bible is reinterpreted. For example, sin in Sodom and Gomorrah is ultimately about inhospitality to strangers
  • God the Father is understood as “coming out” in radical love that dissolves boundaries. Boundaries between sexual and non-sexual relationships; between marriage and queer sex.
  • Jesus is the ‘boundary-crosser extraordinaire’. Cheng even sees Jesus as physically male and genetically female as a result of the virgin birth.
  • The Spirit is the work of God in breaking down boundaries and effecting radical love. All sexual, erotic, and other boundaries that separate are overcome by his ministry of radical love.
  • Sin is redefined as human rejection of God’s radical love; of human rejection of God dissolving boundaries and divisions. Sin is holding on to divisive and judgemental ideas around heteronormativity.
  • The sacraments are reinterpreted as ‘coming out’ for LGBT people. This is expressed in baptism which signals a leaving behind of the old life in the closet and embracing a new life out in the open.

There is much more but this gives a flavour. For most Christians, Queer Theology’s novel and radical nature makes it an example of the ‘Other’. This is a theology that is ‘not like us’ and the people espousing it are most definitely opposed to traditional orthodox Christian teaching on sex and holiness (Obviously this is a broad statement, but there is a clear identifiable core agreed body of Christian teaching on sex, singleness and marriage).

So, in terms of theological response, here is an initial assessment of Queer Theology claims.

I’d argue that this sort of theology is not recognizably Christian in any meaningful sense. It is not even clear to me why Cheng and other Queer Theologians focus on the Bible and Christian faith at all. If there are no boundaries, why tie things to systematic Christian theological categories? Why not ‘queer’ things even more consistently and take any source you like? Why not just use the vast array of LGBT+ stories, poems and art as the source to support the boundary breaking vision of ‘radical love’?

It is also pretty clear to me that Queer Theology is profoundly unorthodox. It lies outside any recognisable Christian tradition. Indeed, it is effectively heretical in its doctrine of God, sin and salvation. It radically relativises the Bible and interprets it through the lens of sexual identity politics.

So that is a very negative response. Some might say such a reaction is judgemental and unloving. I’d say not necessarily. It is an assessment of specific theological ideas. Disagreeing in itself is not unloving. Whether it becomes unloving or not depends on how the next question is answered.

  1. What does it mean to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ in regard to Queer Theology?

Going by the Golden Rule, the question to ask next (and often isn’t) is How would I like to be treated by people who disagree profoundly with what I believe?’ ‘How, therefore, should I act toward those espousing Queer Theology?

Here are seven thoughts in response:

1. I would not want people to dismiss what I believe out of hand as so obviously wrong that it is not worth taking seriously. So I should not do the same to Queer Theologians.

2. I would not want people to misrepresent or caricature what I write or say in order to win an argument. So I should take time to understand and fairly state what Queer Theology is.

3. I would not want people to attack my character for daring to be different from them. So I should not do the same to people self-identifying as Queer.

4. I would not want people to assume that because I disagree with Queer Theology, that I am a homophobic bigot. I should therefore not assume that others’ motives are malign.

5. I would not want people to not bother to try to understand why I believe what I believe because they disagree with me – and see me as a sinner. So I should seek to understand and listen to why people hold to Queer Theology.

6. I would not want people to try to silence me by threats or coercion of any kind. Or refuse to talk to me because I am morally obnoxious in their eyes. So I should not do likewise.

7. I would not want people to pretend to be who they are not, or to ‘spin’ their real beliefs, in order to try to build an unreal sense of unity. So I should speak honestly about what I believe, but with grace and respect.

Comments, as ever, welcome (I think).