Category Archives: Anthropology

I’m listening, but I can’t see anything (Light from the Dark Ages 3)

I’m not sure how many sermons and lectures I’ve attended in the last thirty-nine years. But, it’s a lot. And, after countless hours spent in such oratorical contexts, I’ve learned one very important point. I don’t learn well that way. Unless I take a lot of notes and really force myself to pay attention, I’ll walk out with very little idea of what I just heard. Hearing is not my strong suit.

Indeed, my wife always gets frustrated with me in church. She’ll lean over during the sermon and ask a question. And my usual response is, “Oh sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

It’s not that I don’t care. I’m big fan of the Bible, and I think preaching is fundamentally important. Nor does it mean that my pastors don’t preach well. I’m fully capable of losing focus in the midst of the most outstanding sermon. I just drift. Within five minutes, the preacher will have said something that sparked a thought…and I’m gone. I’ll tune back in again a little later and try to pick up the thread of the sermon, but that usually doesn’t last long either.

I’m much more of a visual learner. What I see has a far greater impact on me than what I’ve only heard. I’m sure that’s largely why I love books and have always been fascinated by movies, TV, and the internet. It’s taken me a while to appreciate other visual arts, but I’m getting there.

I learn best with my eyes, not my ears.

And no, putting the main ideas on power point slides doesn’t qualify.

From what I understand, I’m far from alone. Lots of people struggle to learn well with their ears. Yet, the only mechanism many churches use to teach and train people is the spoken word. Should there be a greater role for the visual in Christian worship and education?

From its earliest days, the church appreciated the importance of visual elements in worship. Whether they worshiped in a house, a catacomb, or a church, the early Christians went out of their way to decorate their worship sites will all kinds of art. Such artistic productions stood alongside the written and preached word as a key aspect of Christian formation.

Despite this long history, two events in the early medieval church contributed to an even greater emphasis on the visual arts in worship. First, as I mentioned in an earlier post (Should we teach classes on how to speak Christanese?), the loss of Latin at the popular level rendered many people incapable of understanding most of the liturgy. Thus, the visual and kinesthetic (bodily movement) aspects of the liturgy took on an even greater importance. Hearing took a back seat and other modes of cognition rose to prominence.

At the same time, the iconoclast controversy provided greater theological justification for the use of visual representation in Christian worship. Without going into the details of the controversy, it revolved around the question of whether it was legitimate to have “images” in Christian churches despite the prohibition of the second commandment. After decades of turmoil and conflict, the consensus emerged that the doctrines of creation and the incarnation both support the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of recognizing art as a legitimate expression of Christian worship. (For a good resource on this, see “Saint John of Damascus and the Iconoclastic Controversy.”)

Together, these two events placed the medieval church on a strong trajectory toward the use of the visual in worship and education.

I can see a lot of value in this development. But, there were some problems as well.

  • The neglect of the spoken and written word. To the extent that we are a people of the word, we simply cannot ignore or neglect the word spoken and written in worship and education. To be fair, the medieval church didn’t sacrifice this entirely, but it was often sadly neglected and underappreciated. Combined with some of the other weaknesses on this list, this left the medieval church exposed to all kinds of problems, setting the stage for the reaction against the visual arts in many segments of the Protestant reformation.
  • The neglect of certain modes of learning. An illiterate laity (often accompanied by an illiterate clergy) and an overemphasis on the visual led to an almost complete neglect of other modes of learning. As much as I appreciate the visual arts, there are some things they just don’t do well (e.g. explain complex ideas, sustain careful arguments, etc.). Losing these modes of learning weakened the church in devastating ways.
  • The failure to train viewers. Though appreciating the power of the visual, the church often failed to understand that people need to be trained to understand the visual arts well. If you doubt, just walk into a modern art museum. (Or, if you already understand modern art, take someone who doesn’t.) Look at those black and red splotches. You can “see”, but can you “see as” the art intends? Can your imagination be shaped by those red scribbles as the artist hoped? Probably not. If you’re like me, you’ll just be annoyed by the pretensions of the modern artist and wonder if you can get your money back. Christian art works the same way. Unless you’ve learned how to “see” the art properly, you may not see it at all. Or, possibly worse, you may end up seeing all kinds of things that were never intended to be there – which takes us to our last point.
  • The interpretive openness of the visual. One of the things that renders the visual arts so powerful is their openness to interpretation. Granted, all forms of communication bear a similar openness. But there’s something distinct about the ability of the visual to remain open before the interpreter and host a wide range of ideas and meanings. This is its power, but it can also be its weakness. Used casually or carelessly, the viewer can find meaning and application far removed the art’s original intent, subverting its own purpose. And, in the middle ages, this often contributed to rampant syncretism. Without proper training in how to see the art properly, people easily integrated it much of their pagan religiosity and superstition. The eucharist becomes a magical ceremony to appease the wrathful gods; Mary morphs into a fertility goddess; and God becomes Odin (or some other deity).

So, what can we learn from all of this today?

  • The need to engage multiple modes of learning. Many of the Reformers responded harshly to the medieval emphasis on the visual. And, given some of the problems mentioned above, that’s understandable. But, we’ve also seen that medieval church had good theological, anthropological, and pedagogical reasons for its visual practices. And, we’ve seen that an overemphasis on one learning style alone can have negative ramifications for the church. So, we would be well advised to learn from those who have gone before and recognize the need for a more holistic approach to worship and education.
  • The need to retain the word written and spoken. At the same time, we should heed well the problems that the medieval church encountered and the serious objections raised by the Reformers. We are and must be people of the Word. We should, therefore, tread lightly and thoughtfully down any path that might take us away from this focus. The visual does not need to be one of those paths, but it has been before and it could be again.
  • The need to use the visual carefully. We teach people to read, to think carefully, and to speak clearly. But, for some reason, we think that everyone intuitively understands how to use and respond to the visual arts. We don’t talk about how to watch a movie, how to view a painting, or how to watch a ballet. Why not? Do we think all people have an innate ability to watch Glee well? Of course not. As we’ve seen, used carelessly, the visual arts can have tragic consequences for the church. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them. (All modes of expression have their own potential for misunderstanding and misuse.) But, it does mean that we need to use them far more carefully than often seems to be the case. Indeed, the resurgence of the visual arts in many churches today makes me nervous for this very reason.

Many of us are visual people. And, from what I’ve seen of God’s creation, I think he’s okay with that. Yes, God spoke. And he speaks. So, let’s speak and speak boldly. But, God also painted, sculpted, acted, and so much more. Let’s learn from the medieval church and see if we can engage all of these modes of expression carefully, thoughtfully, and worshipfully.

(For the rest of the posts in this series, see 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.)

Giving away Half the Church

As I mentioned last week (Are we silencing half the church?), we’ll be spending some time in the next few weeks reviewing and discussing Carolyn Curtis James new book Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Vision for Women.

And, thanks to Zondervan, we have a copy of the book to give away (see instructions below).

According to the publisher’s description:

Women comprise at least half the world, and usually more than half the church, but so often Christian teaching to women either fails to move beyond a discussion of roles or assumes a particular economic situation or stage of life. This all but shuts women out from contributing to God’s kingdom as they were designed to do. Furthermore, the plight of women in the Majority World demands a Christian response, a holistic embrace of all that God calls women and men to be in his world.

And, here’s the promo video for the book.

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We’re going to try something a little different with this giveaway. If you’d like to win the book, here are the various ways that you can enter the contest:

  1. Leave a comment below indicating that you’d like to win the book. You can only enter once this way, but I’ll count it as two entries if you also offer your answer to the following question: How do you think your church is doing at encouraging all women to be actively and fully engaged in the life and ministry of the church?
  2. Blog about the giveaway and link to this post.
  3. Tweet about the contest using the hashtag #western_thm. (One entry per tweet; enter as many times as you want.)
  4. Mention the giveaway on Facebook and tag “Marc Cortez” in your comment.(One entry per comment; enter as many times as you want.)

I’ll randomly pick a winner when we post the reviews of the book in April.

Are we silencing half the church?

My wife is a gifted woman. She has a passion for discipleship and a desire to see God’s word taught clearly and transformatively. My oldest daughter is creative, sharp as a tack, and has a Master’s in communication. My youngest daughters are both gifted in so many areas that I can’t even keep track. I am surrounded by amazing women and girls.

Are we silencing them?

I will never forget one experience that I had while visiting a church. We had just moved back from Scotland and we were really hoping that this church would be our new home.

After one service, I already had some questions. There were no women involved in visible ministry anywhere. Greeters, ushers, worship leader, preacher, even the person who gave announcements…all men.

Now, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. There could be lots of reasons for what was going on that Sunday. I’m certainly not going to judge a church on that basis alone.

Then we talked to the pastor.

It was painful. Through the entire conversation – it lasted about five minutes – the pastor never addressed my wife. Not once. Every time he spoke, he spoke to me. She was standing right next to me, but her presence didn’t seem to matter. For whatever reason, she barely registered on his radar.

But wait, it gets worse. My wife was the one asking all the questions. During the entire conversation, I actually said very little. He would turn to her while she asked the question, and then look straight at me while answering it. Every single time. He never spoke to her.

Message received. We haven’t been back.

Maybe it wasn’t fair. Maybe we rushed to judgment. Maybe we should have given it another chance. I don’t know. But, what we saw was enough to raise serious questions about whether this church was fully committed to supporting the giftedness of the whole people of God – not just the male half.

Are we silencing half the church?

That’s a question that we should all be concerned about. And, it’s the question that Carolyn Curtis James wants us to think through in her new book Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Vision for Women. And, even more, she wants us to recognize the whole range of issues (cultural, global, social, and economic) that often contribute to silencing half the church. According to the publisher’s description,

The Bible contains the highest possible view of women and invests women’s lives with cosmic significance regardless of their age, stage of life, social status, or culture. Carolyn Custis James unpacks three transformative themes the Bible presents to women that raise the bar for women and calls them to join their brothers in advancing God’s gracious kingdom on earth. These new images of what can be in Christ free women to embrace the life God gives them, no matter what happens. Carolyn encourages readers with a positive, kingdom approach to the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing women throughout the world today.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reflecting on some of these ideas to consider whether we really are silencing half the church. To that end, we’ll be hosting a couple of reviews on Half the Church from different perspectives. Todd Miles, Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary, will offer a review of the book from a complementarian perspective. And Brad Harper, Professor of Theology at Multnomah University, will engage the book from a more egalitarian perspective. Along the way, I’m hoping that we will all gain a better appreciation for how we can all, regardless of theological perspective, strive to encourage and support the ministries of all God’s people.

Stay tuned for more information and discussions on this subject.

The Theology and God of Lady GaGa

She is one of the most interesting/disturbing pop culture figures today.  She is likened to other pop divas as Brittney Spears, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera, but has cut out a name for herself in her own right.  She wears dresses made of raw meat and has one of the most eclectic wardrobes of all time.  Every song she produces is a number one hit and I can guarantee that almost every person from the ages of 8-35 (respectively) knows of her or about her.

What you may not have known about Lady Gaga is that she is a theologian!  It may surprise some, but she has a view of God, informed by some type of sources, and she teaches a particular doctrine(s).  Her latest song, Born This Way, which has stood in the number one spot on iTunes since being released, is called the “Manifesto of Mother Monster,” making it a type of creed for people to live by.  The entire song has two goals: 1) To get people to love and accept themselves as they are, and 2) To get people to be love and accept others as they are.  The logical reasoning for this acceptance is found in the chorus:

I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

Don’t hide yourself in regret,
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way
(Born this way)

Sounds like a decent message.  She brings God into the equation, and does make an appropriate and true statement about him, “God makes no mistakes.”  What Christian can argue with that message?  To argue anything other than that is to accuse God of making mistakes, being ignorant of what is going on in the world, and unable to govern his universe.  We know from Scripture, however, that God is infinite, wise, all-powerful, and accomplishes exactly what he wants.  He truly makes no mistakes.

She makes another partially true statement about “being born” the way you are.  If you’re white, black, brown, American, Chinese, or Lebanese God caused you to be born this way.  Again, true.  We know from Acts 17:26-27 that God established the boundaries of men, allotted them the periods of time they would live in, and what nationality they would be.  Who could argue that from the womb they got to plead a case for where they wanted to be born, or what nationality they wanted to be, or what language they wanted to speak.  No, God did that and according to Paul he did it in the hope that men would seek him.

Where Lady Gaga goes wrong is in saying that there is no distinction between nationality and sin.  If God makes no mistakes, and God is in control of your nationality and time of birth, then God also made you lesbian, gay, straight, or bisexual.  Our acceptance of one’s nationality or gender, should be no different from our acceptance of their sexuality.  What Lady Gaga fails to consider, however, is that although God makes no mistakes, man makes plenty of them and has been doing so since the Garden of Eden.  Is it a sin to be African American?  No.  Is it a sin to be a white male?  No.  Is it a sin to be a female from Argentina?  No.   Is it a sin to be lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or a sexually immoral heterosexual?  Yes.  When it comes to nationality or gender, you have no choice.  When it comes to your sexuality you do, and the Bible is clear when it comes to this issue.

Why does a pop song matter?  It matters because everyone is a theologian.  And the question is not whether or not a person has a theological grid for understanding who God is.  The question is whether or not the Bible and the person and work of Jesus Christ inform that theological grid.  Lady Gaga is training/discipling/preaching to culture and the people in your church, especially students, to grid their view of God and others through a particular lens, one of love and acceptance.  And that grid is extremely popular in our day!  That’s not necessarily a bad thing to call people to.  Christians should be calling each other to love people.  However, the danger is that this grid does not take into account the justice of God, the reality of sin, the brokenness of man, the wrath of God against sin, or the desire of God to forgive sinners in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  She’s mixing truth with the cyanide of lie, and great hosts of people are drinking the juice.

If Lady Gaga is right, then it is not sinful for a man to be an alcoholic who beats his wife.  After all, God made me to love alcohol and hate women.  I was born this way.  It’s not a sin to molest little children.  After all someone’s sexual preference for small children would be no different from the lesbian, gay, or heterosexual persons.  Just ask the North American Man/Boy Association.  They were born that way.  And if you’re really going to buy into the god of Gaga, then not only do you simply need to love and accept yourself for being this way, but all of us who disagree with your lifestyle simply need to be more accepting.  If Lady Gaga would disagree with me, that in fact pedophilia and spousal abuse is evil (sin?), then it would be appropriate to ask her on what authority she stands, and why we should believe her?   At this point, please spare me the argument about genetic DNA that shows certain propensities towards certain actions.  All I have to say to that is, welcome to the human race.  We all have those, and it doesn’t make one’s particular actions any more right/good, or them any less responsible for their choices.

According to Scripture however, we learn that God makes no mistakes, he is sovereignly ruling his creation, and that sin has entered and corrupted what was good.  What the creation hates is that the Creator God gets to define what sin is.  Since a rebellious creation does not like his definition, it attempts to redefine and write its own.  The good thing is that God will not stand for his creation rebelling against him and destroying itself, so he intervenes.  He models what love really is by sending his own Son to make right what was made wrong and restore relationship.  In this God shows his love and acceptance towards sinners (really horrible ones as well, just ask Paul), and his absolute hatred of sin.  There is such a thing as sin, God gets to say what it is, it will be accounted for, and everyone will have to deal with Jesus.  We were “born this way.”  This way is broken and needs redemption.  Thank God that we have a redeemer.  It is the height of arrogance, rebellion, and stupidity to rejoice in a sin sick state, when the remedy has been provided.   Praise God that although we were “born this way,” we don’t have to stay in it.

Do you see what I see? Probably not.

Why can’t you see it? It’s so obvious. You’re just being obstinate and refusing to see what’s right in front of your face.

I was leading a theology class the other day, and I could almost see  some of these thoughts leaking from the ears of two of my students. We were dealing with one of the many contentious issues in theology, and they were visibly frustrated that the other student just wasn’t understanding what was so obvious to them. Why couldn’t they get it?

Clearly there’s something wrong with the way they think.

That’s probably true. Because apparently there’s something wrong with the way that we all think. In a recent survey, 52% of Oregon adults said that they think crime is on the rise. The problem is that it’s just not true. According to a recent article in the Oregonian,

From 2008 to 2009, violent crime fell 2.1 percent, putting the state’s rate at 38th nationally. Oregon’s property crime rate ranked 23rd in the nation in 2009, and that year the rate was the lowest since 1966 (emphasis added).

And, people expressed this skewed understanding of crime rates despite the fact that their own experience was significantly different. Only 25% of people said that they thought the crime rate in their neighborhood had gone up.

So, although their personal experience was that crime had decreased and the actual data indicates that crime had decreased, just over half of people still though that crime had increased overall.

When both experience and data suggest one thing, why do we persist in believing something else?

A recent article in the British Medical Journal suggests that the problem comes from cognitive bias, the ways in which we are cognitively predisposed to form certain judgments. For example, “There is considerable evidence that people presented with balanced arguments place weight on those they already agree with, exhibiting what is termed confirmation bias.” In one interesting study,

subjects were initially categorised on a conservative-liberal scale and then exposed to factually incorrect stories on the effect of US tax cuts and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq followed by an authoritative correction. If they sympathised with the initial message the correction either failed to change their misperception or actually reinforced it.

Another study noted that subjects were far more likely to recognize contradictory statements when they were made by someone they disagreed with politically than when made by someone with whom they were sympathetic.

So, we’re predisposed to believing that certain things are true, often despite significant evidence to the contrary.

The implications of this for theology and theological argumentation should be obvious. When you encounter a contrary theological perspective, is it really as obviously false as you think it is? Or, is that your cognitive bias playing tricks on you? Take a closer look. It might be like one of those optical illusions where the woman turns into a musician or the black square turns out to be a picture of three monkeys playing soccer with overripe watermelon. How can you tell if you’re seeing things correctly? You probably can’t. That’s why you need someone to look at the picture with you. They might see it differently. And, then you can talk about it. (And, while you’re at it, you can mock the other person for being so stupid and not being able to see the picture the way you do. That’s part of the fun.)

None of us think all that well. That’s why we keep doing stupid stuff. I’m not sure that thinking in groups is likely to make us all that much smarter, but at least we’ll have people to point out that there are a whole variety of ways to think badly about something. That has to be some kind of improvement. Doesn’t it?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for pointing out these two articles and the interesting overlap between them.)

 

Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will

Why did I choose to follow Jesus? Did God reach out and cause me to want to follow Jesus? Or, did I weigh the various options and choose to follow Jesus as one choice among many?

Why did I pick up my coffee cup and drink just now? Did something cause me to drink? Or, was it a relatively arbitrary expression of my own free choice?

Is there a difference between these two scenarios?

According to Paul Helm, Jonathan Edward viewed both of these from basically the same perspective. And, in the process, he departed from earlier Reformed theologians in significant ways.

As I’m getting prepared for my seminar on Jonathan Edwards this summer, I’m going to blog occasionally on any interesting resources that I’ve run across. Today, I read Paul Helm’s post on “Jonathan Edwards and the Freedom of the Will.” According to Helm, Edwards’ understanding of free will was driven by the “all-encompassing metaphysical principle” that nothing happens without a cause. So, if I make a choice, that choice must have a cause. And, for Edwards, the cause in that case would be my desires. I chose X because I wanted X. And, this same basic framework holds no matter if we’re talking about choosing God or choosing coffee.

For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a ’volition’, which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation. Edwards’s stress is on this all-encompassing metaphysical principle.

All events must have causes.

Helm argues that this is a very different argument from that offered by earlier Reformed theologians. Looking specifically at Calvin, Helm contends that earlier theologians in the Reformed tradition focused more narrowly on “the loss of moral and spiritual freedom as a result of the Fall.” This isn’t because Calvin disagreed with Edwards (which would be hard to do, since Edwards wasn’t alive at the time), but because the nature of the free will debate was different in Calvin’s day. They weren’t concerned with the broader issue of whether every particular event must have a cause, but on the narrower question of whether the human person is free to choose God.

The difference between Edwards and Calvin, according to Helm’s argument, is really the scientific/philosophical context that Edwards operated in. With the rise of modern science and the philosophical turn that took place with John Locke, the issue of causation took a much more prominent place in discussions of free will. So, it’s not that Edwards and Calvin necessarily disagreed on the free will. Helm actually argues that one can find ” clear evidence for what later came to be called a compatibilistic outlook” in Calvin’s theology. But, it does mean that they addressed the issue from very different cultural contexts, and that we need to understand these historical/cultural differences if we are really to appreciate what they were saying.

For more resources on the subject of free will see:

Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come FromContemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From

Are men inherently better leaders?

Many people are going to read the title to this post and dismiss the question as absurd. Of course not. But, I often encounter people who assume that the answer to this question must be “yes” based on their conviction that God has ordained men to be leaders in the church. I’d like to address this latter group.

The question, then, is this: If you are a complementarian – i.e. if you believe that God has ordained men to particular leadership roles in the church – do you need to believe that men are inherently better leaders?

Let me make this easy….no.

The logic that seems to convince complementarians otherwise runs (loosely)  like this:

  1. Being a leader entails having certain qualities/attributes.
  2. God ordained men to be leaders in the church.
  3. God wouldn’t ordain men to be leaders unless he had given them the requisite qualities/attributes.
  4. Therefore, men have the requisite qualities/attributes for being leaders in the church.
  5. God wouldn’t limit these leadership roles to men unless they possessed the necessary qualities/attributes of leadership in unique ways.
  6. Therefore, men inherently possess at least some of the necessary qualities/attributes in a way or to a degree that women do not.
  7. And, therefore, men are inherently better leaders (at least in the church).

This argument, though, has a number of key problems, and several of them arise with the very first statement: “Being a leader entails having certain qualities/attributes.” Right away you’re faced with a number of challenging difficulties:

  • There is no agreed upon set of qualities/attributes necessary for being a leader. Just read the literature. Everyone who studies the question seems to have their own definition of what it means to be a leader.
  • There is no research to support the conclusion that men disproportionately manifest the qualities of being an effective leader (whatever those are). Here you realize that even if you manage to identify the qualities necessary for being a leader, you simply have no evidence for concluding that men possess these qualities any more than women do.
  • Even if you could find research to support the conclusion that men exhibit some leadership quality disproportionately more than women, you would still need to determine why that is the case. For example, let’s say that a study concluded that men are more decisive in decision-making than women. (I’m not aware of any such study, but let’s pretend.) That still would not prove your case because it’s entirely possible that the difference comes from societal expectations of how boys and girls should behave, how they should be raised, the kinds of decisions they should be involved in, etc. So, even a statistical variance would be a far cry from proving your case.
  • Descriptions of “leadership” are often driven more by culture than theology. If we change the picture and focus on the qualities that Jesus exhibited during his earthy ministry – for example, compassion, patient suffering, gratitude, humility, gentleness, nurturing, etc. – would we still be trying to argue that men exhibit these qualities disproportionately more than women? Good luck with that.

I could probably add other arguments, but these seem sufficient to establish that the first step in this argument faces some significant difficulties.

Skipping past the second assertion since I’m only focusing on people who believe this to be true, there are also significant problems with the third assertion: “God wouldn’t ordain men to be leaders unless he had given them the requisite qualities/attributes.”

Really? What would lead us to believe that this is necessarily the case? Throughout the Bible God apparently delights in calling people into positions of leadership who seem obviously unqualified for the position: Moses, David, Saul, etc. These were deeply flawed individuals who often serve as better examples of how to sin effectively than how to lead appropriately. Indeed, God’s grace is often displayed better by accomplishing his plans and purposes through the outcast, the lowly, and the ungifted. Viewed from this perspective, then, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the complementarian to assume that men may actually be less gifted in leadership than women, but that God has called them into leadership anyway and that he will graciously empower them for and support them in this calling? Why presume that people must be gifted before God calls them to a particular task? Did the donkey have the gift of speech before God called it to speak to Balaam? (Yes, I did just compare Christian men to a talking donkey.)

And, once you’ve called into question the first and third assertions, the argument really has nowhere to go. (You could also pick on the fifth assertion if you really felt the need to destroy this argument a bit more.)

Now again, none of this has anything to do with whether it is correct to believe that God has ordained men to specific leadership roles in the church. That is a completely separate issue. I just want to point out that there is no necessary connection between complementarianism and the belief that men inherently possess some quality or qualities that make them better leaders. Leadership is a function, not an attribute. The real question is not whether you have the essential/inherent qualities necessary for being a good leader, as though God depended on our capacities and abilities to accomplish his purposes. The real question is whether God in his grace has called you to be a leader in his church and how you will do so as faithfully as possible with everything that he has given you.

My dissertation is online, but it’s not “appropriate”

Many thanks to Nick Norelli for pointing out that my dissertation is  available online through the University of St. Andrews research database. You’d think I would have known that already, but I didn’t realize the database was open to the public. So, if you’re looking for something to fill your spare moments, feel free to check it out.

I am dealing with some emotional turmoil, however. I tried to access my dissertation a few minutes ago, but I was blocked by the seminary’s web filter because the material “is considered inappropriate”! I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s one thing to have a reviewer or professor tell you that your dissertation isn’t any good. But, when some mindless software starts taking potshots at your research, that’s pretty annoying. I bet it hasn’t even read my dissertation. Stupid software.

I did give my dissertation a pretty snappy title, though, so more people would want to read it:

Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies:  An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind-Body Debate with Special Reference to Karl Barth’s ‘Church Dogmatics’ III.2

Seriously, who could possibly stay away from a book like that? In my family, we gather around the fire and read our favorite parts to each other while eating ice cream. You should try it.

Kathryn Tanner and Gregory of Nyssa on the mystery of the human person

Whatever the knowable dimensions of human nature, its apophatic ones are what count here for imaging of God. An apophatically-focused anthropology forms the natural consequences of an apophatic theology. If humans are the image of God they must be, as Gregory of Nyssa affirms, an incomprehensible image of the incomprehensible: ‘If, while the archetype transcends comprehension, the nature of the image were comprehended, the contrary character of the attributes…would prove the defect of th eimage….Since the nature of our mind…evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its unkowableness the incomprehensible nature.”

Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 53-54

The sexual human: sexualizing the image of God

Megan DeFranza, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented an excellent paper yesterday titled, “Sex and the Image of God: Dangers in Evangelical and Roman Catholic Theologies.” Her paper discussed the recent trend toward understanding the human person and the imago Dei primarily through the lens of human sexuality. Although she thinks that there’s a lot to be appreciated about this approach, she also identified a number of concerns that she has with this development.

DeFranza began by explaining the historical process that led to the current situation. She points out that Christian thinkers have historically neglected gender and sexuality in understanding what it means to be fundamentally human. And, like many, she points to Barth as the key turning point. Barth identified the imago Dei with being created “male and female” and introduced the notion of gender-based relationality as fundamental for being human. To be fully human is to be in community.

This relationally-oriented anthropology, which DeFranza calls the relational imago, though, has developed even further in recent years. Unlike Barth, many contemporary theologians argue that it is not simply relationship that makes us human, but sexuality itself. And, this develop corresponds to developments in secular fields of study that also view human sexuality as fundamental to being fully human.  And, it’s this most recent set of developments that DeFranza is concerned about.

To explain this development further, DeFranza focuses on two representative figures: Stanley Grenz and John Paul II. According to DeFranza, Grenz sees the sexed nature of humanity as leaving human persons with a sense of their own incompleteness and a corresponding drive toward bonding with other(s), which finds its ultimate fulfillment in God himself. Thus, human sexuality isn’t fundamentally about procreation or even marriage, but about the innate yearning for completeness and bonding that grounds all human relationships and pushes toward God.

For John Paul II, sexuality is fundamentally about the human capacity to express love, an act in which the human person becomes gift, and thus realizes the ultimate purpose of being human. And, for John Paul II, this is best expressed and realized in marriage. In this approach, marriage itself becomes paradigmatic for true humanity, and even celibacy, which John Paul II still wants to affirm as a vital (and even higher) mode of human existence, is viewed through the lens of marital union.

So, for both Grenz and John Paul II, sex is now viewed as the lens through which we view all forms of human interaction. We discover our humanity through our sexuality.

DeFranza has no problem with the social imago and the emphasis on love, relationship, and community for understanding humanity. But, she’s quite concerned about the more recent move toward what she calls the “sexual imago” (Grenz) and the “spousal image” (John Paul II). And, she offers a number of reasons for this concern.

Uncovering hidden dangers:

  1. The conflation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She seemed particularly concerned with Grenz here. Although she recognizes that Grenz did not use terms like sexual and sexuality to refer to sexual intercourse, she still thought that his interchangeable use of these terms led to an ambiguous presentation that necessarily confused and conflated terms that are importantly different. DeFranza seemed perfectly willing to say that gender is fundamental for being human, but was concerned about extending that conclusion to sexuality in general.
  2. The sexualization of divine love. Although evangelicals and Catholics would certainly not refer to the divine love as sexual in the sense that there is actual intercourse among the divine persons, they are, nonetheless, willing to speak of the divine love as sexual in the sense that it involves different persons with a drive toward one another in bonding and love. But, since DeFranza thinks that using the language of sexuality to describe this love, their approach almost inevitably leads to the conclusion that sexual expression has now been given divine significance.
  3. The weakening of traditional sexual ethics. If human sexuality is grounded in divine “sexuality,” what parameters can we give for how this sexuality is properly expressed? While most evangelicals and Catholics want to continue affirming monogamous, heterosexual intercourse as the norm, others have not been so restrained. Why not homosexual love (since the Father and Son are both male) or sex with multiple partners (since there are three persons)? And, she’s also concerned that this approach is used to support adultery and divorce. What if you are in a sexually unfulfilling relationship? Would it not be better for one or both parties to find other partners with whom they can more fully express their humanity and experience the divine love?
  4. The undermining of celibacy. DeFranza routinely expressed concerns that the sexual imago and the social imago ultimately undermines the legitimacy of celibate lifestyles, particularly those who are involuntarily celibate. Such persons seem to be missing out on something fundamental for being human and an important experience of the divine love itself. She recognizes that both of the thinkers she reviews would reject this conclusion (John Paul II goes out of his way to affirm the importance of celibacy), but she still thinks that the concern is legitimate.
  5. Concern for the sexually dysfunctional. DeFranza is also concerned about what the sexualized imago will mean for those who experience significant sexual dysfunction. Once again, their essential humanity and their experience of God himself seems at risk.

So, DeFranza concludes that we should hold onto the positive aspects of the social imago, while avoiding the dangers that she thinks are inherent to the sexual/spousal imagos. She thinks we can do this by doing the following.

  1. Develop better readings of Genesis 1-2 that affirm the social nature of humanity without resorting to a sexualized notion of humanity.
  2. Clearly differentiate between the social and the sexual/spousal. The former does not entail the latter and should be an important part of any anthropology.
  3. Clearly differentiate between the sexual and the spousal. She thinks some of the dangers could be avoided if we recognized that spousal love involves far more than sexual love, so distinguishing them can help us appreciate the rich depths of spousal love. But, even with this distinction, she argues that we should not view spousal love as paradigmatic for all human relationships. It is one of many expressions of the social imago, not its essence.

I really enjoyed DeFranza’s paper. One particularly interesting element was when she addressed the ways in which the works of people like Grenz and John Paul II have filtered down to more popular level writings, and in ways that both thinkers would find highly inappropriate. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that many of the concerns she raised came from her interaction with these works. While some might argue that it is not entirely fair to criticize Grenz and John Paul II for the ways that other people use their ideas, especially when those people use the ideas in ways that these thinkers would have disapproved, it does raise the interesting question of how much responsibility thinkers have for the trajectory that their ideas take after them. At the very least, if a concept or idea consistently leads others to inappropriate conclusions, the concept or idea should be seriously re-evaluated.

And, that gets me to my one real criticism of the paper. I think the paper would have been considerably stronger if DeFranza had distinguished between what Grenz and John Paul II were clearly trying to do and the ramifications that she thinks their ideas have had or might have. For example, she routinely critiqued Grenz’s approach for making sexual intercourse essential to humanity. But, Grenz himself did no such thing. I think he is very clear in his writings that he was not talking about intercourse at all, but the sense of incompleteness that results in a drive toward bonding. Whenever Grenz used terms like “sexual” and “sexuality”, it was this broader notion that he had in mind and not actual intercourse. Even if DeFranza thinks that this is an unfortunate use of language that conflates gender with sexuality and necessarily misleads others into concluding that sexual expression is fundamental to humanity (which, again, is a legitimate critique), I would have liked to see a clearer explanation that this was not Grenz’s actual position.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating paper. And, it has caused me to re-evaluate my own use of terminology. Like Grenz, I have had a tendency to use gender, sex, sexual, and sexuality rather interchangeably when talking about the human person (e.g.,“Sexuality: Theological Perspectives on Being Gendered”). While I know what I’m trying to say, I probably need to be more aware of how this language might be (mis)heard and (mis)used by others.