Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: doing theology (Page 1 of 2)

The Resurrection is a Whole Vibe

Rachel Sensenig, another Circle of Hope pastor, recently posted one of those billboard type posts on facebook: “Do I have to believe in the resurrection in order to be a Christian?”

It generated some facebook dialogue which might challenge the truth of our Circle of Hope proverb: “Dialogue keeps us connected and protects our gravity.” Maybe facebook “dialogue” can function as antigravity (???); but I digress. I was struck by how quickly some of her and my pastor friends jumped to answer the question definitively. “YES, of course you have to believe in the resurrection!” they said. One friend wrote a several paragraph facebook comment, which I would never recommend. I think I might sound like the problem is trying to talk sincerely on facebook, but what I really want to try to express is the major difference in vibe between Rachel’s response in her blog post which was linked in this post and the answers our pastor friends were giving.

Rachel had so much generosity and empathy. The facebook answer-ers were dead on arrival if they were going for generosity and empathy. That would be like trying to do brain surgery with a shovel. But here’s some generosity and empathy for them, too: the AI that runs facebook fed this  question to everyone whom it believed it would scandalized. That is what facebook is for and the robots are really good at collision courses. How could our friends resist? Also, I truly believe they were just trying to answer Rachel’s question for anyone who saw her post and might be wondering. It was an opportunity for them to share their conviction They might have even thought that Rachel’s question was a little too open ended. They could have been reacting to a trend in some sections of academia that mostly only seminarians are aware of in which claims about the bodily resurrection of Jesus are regularly called into question, and in which elaborate alternatives are regularly presented.

FWIW I believe that Jesus rose from the dead and so does Rachel. But, “No, you do not HAVE to believe anything.” – Rachel Sensenig. She actually said that!

We’ve been agreeing with questions in our Sunday meetings at Circle of Hope all summer and I am so glad we did. Our “sermon series” has been “Questions (Not Answers) We Agree With.” It has been very refreshing to think and talk on this other wavelength. Each week I say something like “Answers are good for some things but not all things. We want to see if lingering in the questions gives us another kind of revelation.” This little facebook interaction was a parable that helped me understand this difference in vibe that means so much to me. The fact is, many and probably most people really, really want answers. And I don’t. That can be incredibly dissatisfying if you come to me looking for answers, and I’m sorry if I’ve frustrated you. Also, I’m a hypocrite, and just as addicted to answers as the next person, so I betcha I’ve given a few of you some pretty obnoxious answers as well. Sorry for that too.

I am a pretty cerebral person. I have studied a lot. I like talking about answers, and many of my conclusions about God, the Universe and Everything Else are pretty rad. I like them. But, more and more, I am aware of how little love and discipleship of Jesus they produce — and love and discipleship of Jesus is what I REALLY care about.

Rachel agreed with the question for a long time. She demonstrated the validity of the question. She wondered how to help people struggling with cognitive belief.  For Rachel, there was no danger in having that thought because her truest self is hidden in Christ with God. I have a hunch (and a dearest held hope) that my deepest self in Christ will surprise me in many ways, and correct me on several of my rad conclusions. Come, Lord Jesus!

Rachel focused on the person of Jesus and the gift that he offers us who would believe without seeing. Jesus blesses us with a blessing for the struggle of believing. For all who would trust Jesus alive without seeing his wounded body with their own eyes like Thomas did at the end of John’s gospel Jesus utters a prayer: “blessed are they!”

In her blog post, Rachel was doing what my spiritual grandfather, George MacDonald, would hope all Christian teachers would do in this quote (BTW I love how she breaks his antiquated “universal” male pronouns).

“I believe that to him who obeys, and thus opens the doors of his heart to receive the eternal gift, God gives the spirit of his son, the spirit of himself, to be in him, and lead him to the understanding of all truth; that the true disciple shall thus always know what he ought to do, though not necessarily what another ought to do; that the spirit of the father and the son enlightens by teaching righteousness. I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth, to the Master himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it. I believe that the inspiration of the Almighty alone gives understanding. I believe that to be the disciple of Christ is the end of being; that to persuade men to be his disciples is the end of teaching.”
— George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons “Justice”

Obedience is what matters. Thoughts come and go, but the heart is shaped by what we do and who we aspire to be. Jesus instructs us to do ridiculous, dangerous, difficult things. To do any of them consistently requires lots of faith, failure, repentance and courage; and it will inevitably stir up not a small amount of doubt in you. Persisting in community, sharing in the struggle, talking about your fear, and walking in spite of your uncertainty, insincerity, hypocrisy and even occasional hopelessness IS faith. And faith in Jesus is trusting a person who was once dead for a while way back in the day. I trust he is alive to us now in a new way. The resurrection is something that we can much better vibe with and obey than we can even adequately describe, let alone always believe. The resurrection is the thing that is too good to be true, and yet is true. That makes Jesus the truest, and trusting him makes us truer.

Are You Compromising for Love? :: A report From Getting to Know the Bible

Getting to Know the Bible

In Circle of Hope we say in our proverbs “The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project” and one of the ways we are doing that is our “Getting to Know the Bible” dialogue series. The pastors and their friends are leading 90 minute zoom sessions to help anyone who wants to join get a few more handholds in their own Bible reading climb. It is one of our many Gifts for Growing. The next Getting to Know the Bible is on Romans and Galatians on August 11th at 8:00 pm.  Sign up now!

This post is a bit of a debrief from our last Getting to Know the Bible event on Paul and his letters to the churches that my friend Scott Shannon and I led. Of the 21 Epistles (fancy word for letters) in the New Testament, Paul wrote 13 of them. Nine of the epistles that Paul wrote were written to churches and four of them were written to individuals. We brought a storytelling approach which put Paul’s letters in the context of the stories Luke tells about him in the book of Acts. We want to interpret not just what Paul said, as has often been the pitfall for many theologians throughout the centuries, but also what he did. We began to wonder why he did and said what he did and said. Who is this guy, and what was he like? Appreciating him as a whole person, a lot like us, helped us relate to him as a brother, and not a dusty old jumble of words and ideas.

All Theology Has an Adjective

To Scott and I, it seems that much of what Paul was doing was very contextual. No surprise there since everything everyone does is contextual. Nothing can be done or said out of context. The fallacy of too much of Western theology in previous centuries was its claim, at least implicitly, to be a-contextual. I love how Pete Enns and Jared Byaz from The Bible for Normal People put it, “All Theology has an adjective.” Two big problems with much of the Bible reading that I have seen is that it 1) doesn’t fully understand Paul’s context and 2) it does not acknowledge its own. But here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone can adequately do number 1 and most people, if they are humble enough, will also admit they can’t do number 2 either. Most of our lives have a “you-had-to-be-there” quality to them. The more we show up to the depth of our own experiences, the better we can empathize with Paul’s who lived in such a different time and place. Our added benefit is that we have Jesus uniting us across that great chasm. Do not be afraid to apply your own understanding.

How Do Paul’s letter and the Book of Acts Line Up?

So here’s how the story about Paul lines up with his letters — what he did and what he said in one neat (and very undetailed) table.

Acts OutlineActs 1:8 Jesus’ map for the church

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

1. The Church In Jerusalem (Chapters 1-7)
2. The Church in Judea and Samaria (Chapters 8-12)
3. The Church in Gentile Territories (Chapters 13-21)

1st Missionary Journey.

Then Jerusalem Council in chapter 15,

Then 2nd and 3rd Missionary Journeys.
Paul goes around planting churches and then he writes to them.

Acts 13:13-52 Paul preaches and the Holy Spirit comes down in Antioch. Titus is said to have been from Antioch.

Acts 14:1-7 Paul meets Timothy in Lystra — a kid in one of the first church plants. (1 and 2 Timothy) Later a pastor in Ephesus (Ephesians)

Acts 16:1-5 Paul and Timothy in Galatia (Galatians)

Acts 16:11-40  In Philippi (Philippians)

Acts 17:1-9 In Thessalonica (1 and 2 Thessalonians)

Acts 18:1-17 In Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians)

It is generally assumed that (Philemon) lived in Colossae; in the letter to the (Colossians), Onesimus (the slave who fled from Philemon) and Archippus (whom Paul greets in the letter to Philemon) are described as members of the church there.

Colossians is conspicuously not mentioned in Acts.

Hebrews was traditionally believed to be written by Paul but this is generally assumed to be unlikely. Pseudepigraphy was common in the ancient world (“pseudepigraphy” means writing under someone else’s name — though Hebrews never claims to be written by Paul in the text and lacks any of  Paul’s personal flair.)

4. Paul’s Trials and Voyage to Rome (Chapters 21-28) Back to Jerusalem and the powers-that-be in order to get to Rome.(Romans) Paul writes ahead of his journey there.

He ends up imprisoned by the Roman Empire. He writes many of these letters while in prison or on house arrest. (Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon)

Paul’s Two Tiers

Scott and I had the group considering Paul’s context and our own. It seems that Paul often talks out of both sides of his mouth. What does he really mean? Is he contradicting himself? Which paul is the real one? We have a helpful way to think about that — we call it a two tiered approach. Check out “Paul’s Two Tiers and Social Action” on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Paul’s first tier is a word from the Lord, a basic new thing that Jesus reveals. It is the heart of Christ’s new creation. The second tier is a brainstorm of how one does that in their real life, what it means to keep revealing this in the world in our time and place. Paul was empowered to give it a try in his context and many of the things some of my friends bemoan him for were actually more revolutionary in their moment than we can rightly understand in ours. The best way to tell the difference between the two tiers is to relate to Jesus yourself. It’s a vibe. You’ll know it when you know. Sorry, I do think it is really more like a feeling than something I can tell you. And sorry if you think that’s dangerous. 

It was much more dangerous for Paul, whatever our current consequences. Scott and I thought that much of Paul’s second tier teaching was consciously holding back on the throttle of status quo in order to keep a fragile new movement alive. Paul was cautious to not shatter all the conventional wisdom in one fell swoop. Or he might have been scared, too, though that seems unlikely given his unprecedented courage and boldness demonstrated elsewhere. Or he might have just not gotten to it. He had a plan to keep things moving and stretched people only so far as he thought they could go, and then he got killed. Or he just couldn’t see the full-scale societal transformation that the Gospel anticipated because he was too much a man of his own time. I don’t know for certain, of course, if it was any of these things, but I can understand if it were any of them or all of them. But, again, I think Paul was making concessions for a very real existential threat — living past tomorrow might have been the church’s best move which required some preservation of an incomplete social order.

Decadence is Our Existential Threat

But we are not under that same threat. Our choices in the United States are not “do or die,” but our faith may be dying or dead instead. Scott liked the word “decadence” for our own existential threat. We are so accustomed to the hollow husk of Christendom, so in love with the myth of a Christian Nation, so fat and happy on our spiritual junk food, that we have lost our way and our connection to The Way, Jesus himself. Too often we find churches designed to continue instead of to follow Jesus. “Keep calm and carry on,” is not a church slogan, especially not for a church sent into a rapidly changing world.

This moment for the Church in the United States ought to demand the creative thinking and inventive theological compromising that marked Paul’s relentless adaptation to his circumstances, but we are bloated with the demands of the past and of our own comfort and it seems unlikely that the whole Church will change before its already dead on the inside. (Parts of the body are definitely already necrotic.) 

What Would You Compromise for Love?

In the face of the existential threat of decadence we asked our participants, “What would you compromise for love?” Here is some of their wisdom:

  • In Circle of Hope I’ve had to evolve my thinking about LGBTQIA issues. It happened in community with LGBTQIA folks. 
  • My sense of theological purity. Every moment does not demand that i state my objection. I don’t have to set myself apart. I can even participate as who I am in Christ without public caveat, and I have found that beautiful things happen when I do.
  • Giving up conviction as a motivator for action. I desire black and white ideas to feel secure and powerful. I give that up to work in the gray of my real life with the real people I know. 
  • My anger, my vengefulness.
  • My own comfort.
  • Family traditions or rules.

What would you compromise for love? What does your context demand? Do you know your context well enough to discern? These questions are all great places to start. I pray that Jesus, the Way is with you on your way and you know it.

Knowing the Good

South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken’s 1000th delivery celebration

When the South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken Compassion Team gathered to celebrate their 1000th delivery last week I led them in a ritual of naming the Good. Of course we know the work we are doing is good. We organized with the wider South Jersey Mutual Aid Network at the beginning of the pandemic to offer solidarity not charity. We say that food insecurity is not a just matter of individual scarcity; it is a matter of unbalanced distribution of food abundance. And that is a community problem, not just an individual problem. I say to all the people in our network who I call back from our google voicemail box, “Somos vecinos!”(we are neighbors!)

That little sign-off, “Somos vecinos!”, is the same sort of naming the good that I was leading the team to do at our Zoom celebration. Our relationship needs a name. It is good that we are together in this. We must do what little we can to reshape the narrative about the common good. The more mutuality, the better, but it is hard to move against the current of other stories about what is good like “self-reliance”, “individual responsibility”, “the private pursuit of happiness.” I’m not saying those things are not good in and of themselves, but that they are too loud in my context; they are drowning out alternatives — alternatives which are badly needed in our delivery area, Pennsauken and Camden, NJ.

What we know about doing good gets lost under the noise.

I’m tying myself in knots trying to describe what is good. There are competing claims, many stories. All have merits but none matter as much as actually doing good. We know what is best by doing, not by saying. This, I think, is an obvious human characteristic; but it’s so obvious it is easily forgotten. We are attracted to the complexity of expertise, the power of a well crafted argument, the boldness of a brilliant speaker. We are bombarded by too many champions of too many causes. Many of us have become adept at ignoring each other — simply for self protection, not apathy. The habit bleeds over into actual relationships until we never answer the phone and rarely read our emails or even texts. Isolation was a pandemic before Covid-19. What we know about doing good gets lost under the noise.

That’s why the ritual with the Compassion Team was so important. We needed to feel the basic wisdom. We are doing! And there is valuable information in that experience of doing which needs to rise to the top of our experience. We don’t want it to be buried under the noise. The knowledge of doing breeds more peace of mind and longer endurance when it is necessary. The work we do on the South Jersey Mutual Aid in Pennsauken Compassion Team does, indeed, require endurance. It is constant. Week by week we field phone calls, gather donations, pack boxes and deliver enough food to feed families as big as 11 or 14 for four days.  if we don’t feel the intuitive knowledge of doing we won’t last long.

Knowing the good in the moment is rare and requires celebration.

There is a difference between knowing what we are doing IS good and knowing the good as we do it. Knowing the good in the moment is rare and requires celebration. Otherwise we get stuck in the argument, or we forget to make the connections between our ideas and our experience. If we don’t savor those moments of knowing the good is good, of participation in the Good, we will burn out.

So name the good, yes, and do the good, and then notice the feeling of the doing. This is a way to BE good in a way that does not require proof. You’ll know and that will fuel more than any claim ABOUT you or what you do.

We’re learning something old.

Jesus put it this way in Matthew 21:28-32 (The Parable of the Two Sons)

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

I am very grateful for a group of passionate people, some of them Jesus followers from Circle of Hope but many of them not. I think we are learning this basic human wisdom alongside each other. You know something when you do it, not when you say it. The sons figured this out. The tax collectors and prostitutes figured this out. It was the religious people whom Jesus was talking to that forgot it. I’m motivated to keep going in what I’ve been given to do because, at least to a degree, I am finding the joy of this wisdom, too, and it is giving me LIFE. I am looking forward to more good, and I am confident because I trust the Source of Goodness, Jesus him-living-self.

We’re VERY human! (And that is a good thing.)

“Forget ‘we are easily misled.’ We are easily led… period.” – Justin Beniston

My friend Justin said this years ago and I wrote it down because it struck me as being so true. We, that is to say, human beings, are very easily led. Labels such as individualist, free-thinker, iconoclast, and innovator to which we are all trained to aspire do not fit humans very naturally. We are so much more communal, collective, traditional, and conservative than most of us care to admit. Though I am not sure why we are so hell-bent on being unique, autonomous creatures when we were actually made for each other.

We are all part of a tribe, whether we know it or not

When Justin quipped his memorable phrase in a cell meeting he was not deriding humanity for just being a bunch of sheeple or something like that. He was describing his experience in church, and celebrating how the cell helped him hold onto his faith in a new way. Many antagonistic atheists, of course, would tell you that anyone who is in a cell meeting or any other Jesus-centered gathering is definitely a sheep with their own wool pulled down over their eyes. This, however, would be another demonstration of Justin’s point. Your antagonistic atheist friend would simply be expressing the views of their tribe, characteristics of which include simplistic arguments that cherish cheap gotcha moments and relish the embarrassment of perceived opponents. It is uncanny how similar my conversations are with folks of that tribe.

I will deride the characteristics of their arguments which focus on hurting others, but I won’t deride their similarity. When they sound so similar they’re only being human. I act like that too. As a leader of a people centered on Jesus I depend on our communal understanding to lead the group. Our commonality is part of our strength. People seek out Christian community because they know they need support in believing in a God whom they cannot see and following the Way of Jesus which is very difficult because it is so distinct from what passes for normal in our society.

So choose a tribe that embraces your doubts

Trust is never easy. Faith is a challenge. Obedience feels nigh on impossible most of the time. We need each other and this is not a weakness. We need each other and that was how we were made.

Here’s something else Justin said: “It is easier to trust in a group when you’re not the only one doubting and needing to trust.” This is a unique hallmark that Circle of Hope can boast. Doubt is ok among us. Despite popular understanding to the contrary, the opposite of faith is not uncertainty. Though it varies from individual to individual, the opposite of doubt is much closer to fear or mistrust. Uncertainty is common in my experience of following Jesus, and Jesus said that’s how it would be way back when his disciple, Thomas, was demanding proof of his resurrection. Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). The author of Hebrews said it, perhaps most famously, “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see ” (Hebrews 11:1). We face this doubt together in Circle of Hope by being honest about it. Our group identity is centered on trust not certainty.

Of course we need to trust! Of course we doubt! We’re only human! Or better: We’re VERY human! (And that is a good thing.)

If everyone in your tribe starts sounding the same; if questioning the agreed upon norms and arguments becomes risky; if you’re lonely in your private doubts; it is really hard to keep the faith. This is true no matter the object of faith. Healthy groups provide a safe place for members to voice their questions, but if the group identity is based on a foundation that is so fragile it needs constant protection from perceived attacks, only the faith of the strongest proponents will survive. A group like that becomes an idea protection society. Faithfulness to the cause becomes recitation of the core principles and antagonism toward other thought systems. Sounds familiar right? Many churches function this way. Circle of Hope is attempting another course.

Jesus’ faithfulness is our example

Jesus demonstrated the human project to be loving faithfulness to God. Jesus was also a human do-ing in relationship with a father, God, not just a human being in relationship to the animating principle of the universe. God designed relationship with humanity to be parental and purposeful. Humanity has directions. Babies aren’t born with instruction manuals, but children are meant to become co-workers in an ongoing construction project with the Creator. Jesus summarized this project as “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind… and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22). Almost everyone I know, regardless of tribe, respects the second commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s elsewhere likened to “the Golden Rule.” Too many people think this is basic — as in easy, elementary, common — but I think the Great Commandment, as I like to call it, is really hard to do!

We aren’t very good (really) at the Golden Rule

Most people want to believe they are very good at making moral decisions. Everyone wants to believe they are generally a good person. There is nothing wrong with this desire, unless we are serious about wanting to BE moral and actually DO good. Wanting to believe in our own personal capacity for goodness is a recipe for failure.

In fact, humans are not very good at moral decision making. We do not choose good based on sober-minded judgments. Much more often, we choose whatever presents itself to us. We are products of our environment. It’s not just a cliche. Our environment and tribe is very, very influential in all of our decision making. Justin was saying this in a new way. If we drop the individualism act and embrace this element of our humanity we will be better off.

And that could be a OK if we admit it

We could see the fact that we are easily led  as a positive attribute. Our relational, inherently communal orientation could be beautiful. Accepting this part of ourselves makes choosing our tribe all the more important. What kind of decisions do you want to make? Who do you want to trust? How do you want to be a part of God’s project for the world? (Do you wan to be a part of it?) Your tribe will help you answer these questions, and help you live up to your aspirations. You do not have to go it alone, and in fact, no one ever actually does anyway.

Those who claim preeminent individuality are much less successful at impassivity than they think. They are just covertly influenced. Blindness to what is functionally leading us is foolishness. Insistence on independence when we are naturally dependent creatures is misguided. Refusing to examine what influences us leads to all kind of evil. But awareness of the community that shapes us helps us to be and do what we hope.

Want to choose Circle of Hope (or come and see if you might want to?)

This is the way we are choosing in Circle of Hope. We say we are creating an environment where people can know God and act for redemption. We are seeking active participants who nurture our communally nurtured environment. We are a chosen tribe, a new chance at family. Each of us consciously choosing the influence of others because we know we are not as good as we want to be at making decisions that lead us in our chosen way — the Way of Jesus.

If you’re interested in joining up, let me know, [email protected]. In the pandemic, most of our cells are on zoom, so you can link up from anywhere.

South Jersey Cell Leaders on Zoom

“Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing” Verse Four Explained

The Best Verse of Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing Requires Some Explaining

“Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing” is my favorite Christmas Carol. It was a family favorite growing up but it became a personal favorite when I was driving home form the hospital after my first son, Oliver was born. Carrie Underwood was singing it on  B101, when it struck me as I made the turn from Spruce Street on to 38th Street in university City, that Jesus also came to be with my son. This life i had chosen to bring into the world was anticipated and provided for by the Newborn Prince of Peace. I had been grateful for this gift of Love for myself but never had I yet been so grateful for the salvation of another. Fatherhood had pulled me out of my self circumscription sufficiently to weep for joy of the Lord’s nearness to another. I think that moment with Carrie Underwood in the car, less than 24 hours after Oliver’s birth, was when I actually became a father.

Baby Oliver

But Carrie Underwood, like many before her, skips the fourth verse. Here it is as I know it.

Come Desire of Nations, come! Fix in us thy humble home.
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed! Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s image now efface, Stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy love.

I just learned on Wikipedia that this song  features lyrical contributions from Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, two of the founding ministers of Methodism, with music adapted from “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen” by Felix Mendelssohn. This version of verse four is a mash up of Wesley’s original version in 1739 and Whitefield’s adaptation in 1758. The wikipedia article also shows how many hymnals don’t even have a verse four. But verse four is the best verse!

The “desire of the nations” is the prophesied coming Messiah (Hag 2:7).  God wants to dwell in us. We are God’s home. The “woman’s conquering seed” comes from Genesis. After Adam and Eve sinned, God promises that the seed of the Woman will crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15).  This child, born of a virgin (Isa 7:14), will make all things right that was broken in the Garden. As Jesus rises, we ask him to bruise in us the serpent’s head.  Jesus is coming into the world in the drama of Advent and again in his Second Advent (“advent” means coming) to  undo the sting of sin and death. The source of it will will be crushed!  We sing to Jesus, this conquering seed, “Efface the image of Adam, the first Adam, and stamp a new image in it’s place, your image, Jesus, the “Second Adam from above” (“efface” means to scratch out or erase.)

Here’s the scripture from Corinthians that gives us this language:

“So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.  The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” – 1 Corinthians 15:44b-49

I love the future orientation of this fourth verse. Christmas is not just about something that happened in the past. It is happening here and now in us and is going to happen even more , for every child that is born until Jesus returns. (Here’s some love to travisagnew.org for the Bible references compilation.)

But who is Adam?

Pete Enns

Pette Enns is releasing a new edition of his 2012 book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins and on a recent episode of his podcast, The Bible for Normal People (Episode 148: Adam, Evangelicalism, & the Metanarrative of Evolution  November 22, 2020), he walked through some of his argument in the book. His most noteworthy claim is there was not a historical Adam and Eve. Evangelical attempts to maintain a belief in a historical Adam  and incorporate what we have learned through scientific discovery will inevitably fail. “You can’t pin the scientific tail on the evangelical donkey” he says in the podcast, “We can’t simply merge the ancient world and the modern scientific one.”

I love the imagery he uses of trying to solder on the new information from science to the traditional theological reading of the Genesis account of human origins. Enns says we need a synthesis of theology and science and this means that the basic theology musty be impacted by the science.

His soldering image called to mind a time when I was trying to solder the fitting of the pipe that went from my basement under the porch and out to the spigot in the front yard. The pipe had frozen and I was replacing it with my minimal plumbing skills and with minimal time. I didn’t wait for the pipe to adequately dry after turning off the water, so their was still water in the pipe. I do not know how plumbers who know how to do this deal with this problem, but my solution was just to not wait and put a ton of solder on the joint. It did not work very well. The water inside the pipe kept bubbling through the liquid metal I was trying to melt onto the joint. I got it water tight after several attempts and I imagine the globby mess is still on that pipe in that basement in West Philly which I no longer own.

It’s ok for our ideas about God, the origins of the cosmos and our own thoughts about it not to work. Properly done, the job will take time and it won’t be pretty. Because we are “in the pipe” so to speak. Life is a constant flow of water and we might not ever be able to shut off the water at all. Pete Enns says, and with this I heartily agree , “To claim that God doesn’t change doesn’t mean that our understanding of God should never change.”

Enns’ example: What does it mean to say with the iron age poet who wrote Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God”? when the known universe is 546 sixtillion miles wide. In the podcast, Enns demonstrates how incomprehensibly big this is by talking about how long  it would take to count “1, 2, 3 … all the way up to 546 sixtillion,

“This is were my calculator just gives up . It punts it spits out 1.75 followed by  sixteen zeros which is just south of twenty quadrillion years to count the size of the universe and that number quadrillion  means nothing to us. These are incomprehensible numbers….The thought of it all should be unsettling to all who are paying attention…The staggering dimensions and vast age of the universe coupled with the revolutions of relativity and quantum physics are psychologically and spiritually disorienting.” – Pete Enns

… Wow.

Whoever the First Adam is or Was. The Second Adam is on His Way

There isn’t much comfort in that disorientation. I feel grateful that I don’t have a lot of anxiety about what it all means. I am confident that all will be revealed by the Second Adam, when he comes to raise us from the dead and bestow upon us the inheritance of his resurrection life in our renewed bodies.

“If/When” by the Tea Club — Cover Art by Kendra McGowan

 

On Christmas Day, when I sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” I won’t be focused on the incomprehensible past but the incomprehensible future. There is just as much disorienting mystery in that new reality we are promised. The immensity of time and space, for me, are a lovely amplification of the staggering mercy of God, that God would be with us in this tiny, seemingly insignificant, but apparently very significant pale blue dot in an effectively infinite cosmos. Yes, God came to be with us. God came to be with me and with you, and with my son. And God’s plan does not end in the current mystery of my unknowing.

To quote my favorite band and my brothers in Christ, Dan and Pat McGowan of The Tea Club in their anthem, Creature,

“All will be revealed
All will see the wisdom
All will be restored
All will know forgiveness
All your creatures long for the new creation
Where boundaries of death are ever failing.”

“Adam’s image now efface!/Stamp thine image in its place!/Second Adam from above,/Reinstate us in thy love.” (This choir just posted the “full” version)

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Don’t Forget, Jesus is the Lord of History

Is the Church Just Following Culture?

Try as we might, we cannot separate ourselves from the influences that have shaped us personally and the greater forces that have shaped our context. Our ongoing, and longstanding dialogue about antiracism in Circle of Hope has been dialed up in recent months in the wake of police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When we wrote a map that was decidedly antiracist some folks wondered if we weren’t just following the tide of the culture.  Is it just popular to be antiracist now and that is why we are doing this? Are we caving to philosophy that is not from Jesus?

No! We were here first. Circle of Hope has had antiracism written into our DNA since we began. How would we do our original goal to “bring hope to 20th century urban life” without addressing the evil powers of racism in the Philadelphia region? Our antiracist map does not make Circle of Hope cool, or ahead of our time. it doesn’t give us points for being into the right thing before everyone else was. No, this is not about our own righteousness, individually or communally. This is about chipping away for decades and often feeling like we are making no progress at all. But we refuse to give up, and I am grateful that the cultural tide is giving us a boost for once.  I do wish we had galvanized a mass movement without so many black people being killed. That’s for sure. Lord, have mercy.

Times Are Tough and So Is Time

But let’s face it, it’s hard to stay in touch with reality. It’s hard to keep our fingers and hearts together enough to catch the slippery sands of time. Western culture dishes up an individualism that might divorce you from any connection to anything, especially not those backward ancestors that didn’t know everything like we do. Dislocation, disorientation, disassociation, these are all the underside of our culture catered diet of self-awareness, self-definition, self-help.  We all woke up fully formed this morning with no dependence on anything or anyone. Only our choices today matter. It sounds terrible but you kinda want it, right?

It’s fun to see my kid learn to relate to time. By fun I mean it’s also terrible sometimes, but you have to laugh. Not too long ago he asked me how long he would have to wait for something. I said “Twenty minutes.” He responded, shrieking in horror, “Twenty minutes?! That’s like 100 hours!!!” No bud, in fact that is finally one thing I can say is undeniably false. He only recently stopped saying “A long time ago,” or “When I was a baby” as blanket descriptors of anything that happened in the past, including something that happened last week.

The Past is Not Just in the Past

Every honest adult, however, understands my six year old’s dilemma.  Time may not be  relative (except in some cosmic equation I don’t totally understand), but our experience of time is very relative. My favorite elucidator of this is the “return trip effect.” Scientists have studied the phenomenon of perceived duration of time when coming back on the same route from an unfamiliar destination. You know this, going there always feels like it takes longer than coming back. Yes, our experience of time is very relative, so much so that it might seem like time is subject to our perception only and thus eligible for exclusion in our analyses, but let us not pretend that our lives began only when we were born. The past is not in just in the past. The past is right here with us in the present.

But Jesus and His People Are the Past Too

Good or bad, the past makes us who we are in many ways. I want to highlight one good thing I see coming out of this that helps us when we’re wondering about the tide of culture and our push for antiracism in Circle of Hope. The culture might try to erase God from it’s narrative but the Western/European thoughtscape was and is highly influenced by Jesus. There is no escaping the moral influence of the Church on all of our thinking. But especially when it comes to racial justice. The Church planted the seeds of transformation that grew into a vine. It was Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the least of these that empowered so many to stand up and demand justice. The list is too long to even begin. Even if some of their activist descendents are not so interested in the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, that doesn’t mean they don’t have it. If only in the path they walk which is so clearly paved by the legacy of those faithful women and men who stood up for freedom in Jesus’ name. They might try to pretend that the project is distinct from Jesus, but they can’t escape the past. The tide of culture is not so distinct from Jesus because the Church has been shaping the Western project from its beginnings.

But It’s a Mess Back There… Sounds Familiar

One final note: a big reason an activist today might want to separate themselves from the Christian legacy of their ancestors, or the whole Jesus soaked Western project is that accepting the influence of the past is not just a hero story. With the past comes many legitimate reasons to be disgusted with Jesus followers and their thinking. It’s a big mess, but it’s part of our mess now. I’m not surprised by the mess. I don’t think we need a hero other than Jesus, but we have many to choose from if we are willing to accept their human frailty as another measure of their heroism. We will not, however, find a whole group of people who were unimpeachable, or completely above reproach, or even right, let alone righteous. We will find reasons to hope, practical examples of bravery and perseverance, and creative expressions of Jesus’ love in public, but we will also find  reasons for despair right next to them.

Pray with me?

Jesus, you will have to give us eyes to see. Thank you for the good of the past, help us to receive it and sort it. This is not an easy task. But you are with us in it.
You are the Lord of History. You are reliable. Your promises can be trusted. Bring history to its rightful ends.
Shape it now through your church and otherwise, help us to see you at work, even in unexpected places.
May your glory be made known through miracles large and small, and may your light be found where the darkness seems to make that impossible.
We pray for all those who are suffering. We know you are with them. Help us see how we can be with y’all. And help us to stay.

Tumbled Open Good Friday Prayer

It’s Good Friday. I wrote us a poem that’s also a prayer. Hope on a death day. Jesus was the first one, but now they are all that for those who are in Christ. One of Circle of Hope’s blogs celebrates death days of those who have gone before — Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body  . Today, April 10th, we remember Howard Thurman. Join me in this prayer, you can hear me read it below.

Tumbled Open Good Friday Prayer

Graves tumbled open the day that you died,
And darkness fell down where noon used to shine.
The temple shook and all were welcome inside.
Erased, cracked or broken you made every line,
Between death and life, between dark and light;
Between in-and-out, between right and might.

You reversed our reversals; gave us much more  —
So much more than we hoped for. What had you done?
How could we see that your death was a door?
And how can we follow where your victory’s won?
We could die even now, here as we breathe,
And then again, out beyond our own breath’s reprieve.

We will see what it’s like to live on forever,
We will know what we look like with you in our eyes;
We too will tumble and darkness will never
Bring sorrow and sadness, loud angry cries,
But not without now, not some not-here place,
No escape yet from sorrow, no exit but grace.

 

Poetry and images by Ben White

 

Try as you might, you can’t take Christ out of Christmas (so don’t worry about it)

(This post was originally posted at circleofhope.net on our main blog) Have you noticed that they keep churning out Christmas movies that make no mention of Jesus? America’s holiday gods have a different mythology, but I don’t think they have escaped the Good News despite their best efforts. No matter the situational comedy of the film, the message always has something to do with longing and mystery. The “magic of Christmas” as portrayed in our current myth-makers’ minds has something very much to do with desire. And that desire is very Jesus-y.
Netflix, the perhaps preeminent myth-maker du jour, has a new ret-con of the origins of the Santa Clause myth. With Klaus they have done it again. The title character is motivated by his longing for the wife he lost. The joy of the children’s wishes and his fulfillment of them brings him a sense of satisfaction that keeps amplifying him into ultimate immortality, it seems, by the end of the film. This is another telling of the America holiday gods myth, which might make you squirm if you are a confessing Christian, but I think it can be redeemed. The presence of Christ in the lingering longing I see in our culture’s iconography ( the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject) hit me last night when my cell was listening to Christmas music on YouTube while we packed holiday gift boxes for local elementary kids. The YouTube Christmas mix started playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I said out loud, “Oh! Christmas is about longing! I get it.” I wish that our culture hadn’t forgotten that Jesus is the fulfillment of our longing, but I don’t think folks are too far from the root when they wake up to their longing. There IS something more, and everyone feels that. Wham! has been singing the anthem of non-Christmas, Christmas longing for almost my entire life. “”Last Christmas” was released in 1984 and it is still number four on the iTunes most played holiday songs this year. I’m not sure I can redeem that one, sorry. But at least “Christmas” is in the title. How did Judy Garland and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” get in here?
Wouldn’t it be better to long for something more than a better lover this year, someone more special? Then again, who is Jesus but the best lover? And he is even bigger than your personal longing for companionship and specialness—he is the lover of the whole world and its deliverer from all things that steal love. Whoever stole George Michael’s heart, too. Of course, the America holiday gods have another “cure” for that wistful feeling. They are experts at implanting and intensifying that longing in their quest for you to buy your happiness. It has worked to the tune of billions of dollars for billionaires and the dangerous deadening of real hope. If my satisfaction is in things, I become a thing. I become a cog in the great economic wheels that survive only by our investment in the lie that things will ever satisfy.
Instead, in Circle of Hope we are holding on to that longing. We are recognizing what it’s for; it is not the survival of the world economy—neither are we. You are not a thing, so things will not satisfy you. You are a human being and that longing is there in you because Jesus put it there. You can’t take him out of Christmas no matter how hard you try. He is here. He is God-with-us. God with us in our longing. We were made to find ourselves as who we are and whose we are in the revelation of Jesus. He is behind the “magic of Christmas.” The myths work as well as they do because we know there is more. Jesus longs for us to find him at the root of that feeling. The myth-makers didn’t make that feeling, it was there at the beginning, and Christ was there with it, and he is still with us now.

Living from the Future

Something terrible happens — you get in a car accident but you’re okay, you lose your job, a loved one gets sick or even dies. In these moments, why do people say, “Everything happens for a reason?” This is a bit of conventional wisdom that has a staying power that we, the Circle of Hope pastors, were exploring in our series of talks on the “Things Jesus Never Said.” My operating principle in designing these talks was to explore the worldly wisdom in contrast with the wisdom of the cross. But I didn’t want to just slam the things everyone says.  I don’t think there is always a direct contrast between the two wisdoms. The wisdom of the cross does not shout down the wisdom of the world; it subverts and transforms it.

What Jesus actually said is often so different that there is no real opportunity for any kind of violent collision of thoughts. Jesus gets at the root of things, the things below the surface that very few people are talking about. Jesus addresses the parts of us that really need to change if we are going to live a transformed life. Jesus comes at things from such a different angle that the people talking to him misunderstood him, some almost completely. In general, I think the Christian Church misunderstands Jesus as much as his contemporaries.

In my message on November 24th, 2019 at Circle of Hope in Pennsauken, NJ, I compared “Everything happens for a reason” to Jesus saying in John 9 that the man born blind from birth was born blind not because he sinned or his parents sinned “but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Jesus’ reasoning is not cause and effect. There is no reason for this blindness. Jesus actually said that the man is being caught up in the inevitability of the Kingdom of God here on Earth. The works of God Jesus goes on to say is to bring light to all who will open their eyes to it with his help. The religious leaders keep their eyes shut and refuse to see Jesus for who he is, because they have their wisdom intact.

Luke Bartolomeo, Circle of Hope’s Communication Manager, turned me on to a podcast called “You have Permission” with Dan Koch that aims to help religious people like the ones who were talking past Jesus in John 9 reconsider their vision.  “You Have Permission” means “we are allowed to talk about this.” It often features the intersection of theology and science. I was blown away by a recent interview Dan did with John Haught, author of The New Cosmic Story, because it confirmed my conclusions from John 9 from a totally different angle.

It seems that we humans, at least the Western minded ones I hang out with the most, are oriented to the past. We interpret the present based on a cause and effect narrative. The disciples ask “What is the reason for this man’s blindness? What cause made this effect? They assume it has something to do with sin and punishment (conventional wisdom echoed throughout the Hebrew scriptures). But Jesus’ answer is oriented to the future. This happened because something is about to happen.

I was amazed when John Haught started telling this same story from a cosmic perspective on the podcast. The unfolding universe is a drama that isn’t finished yet. Scientific discoveries in the past century correspond with this reorientation from the past to the future. The cosmos is heading somewhere and we are caught up in it. I’d encourage you to listen to the whole 90 minute episode.

The part that most intrigued me about Dr. Haught’s argument was the philosophical history that uncovers another big source of our attraction to “Everything happens for a reason.” He tracks it into the first centuries of the church where Greek philosophy and theology was very influential. At the root of the Christian movement our ancestors, because the were steeped in Greek culture and thinking, buried Jesus’ future oriented worldview (or cosmosview) under Greek thinking. Dan Koch’s project on his podcast is to convince us that we have permission to interrogate that. John Haught has been thinking and writing about the intersection of science and religion for a long time and I was very compelled by his description of three views of the cosmos that greatly impact our interpretation of scripture and our own lives.

Archaeonomy combines two Greek words for origin and law. This stance, held by most scientists, breaks down present phenomena into their primordial elements. Thus, it is reductive, deterministic, and physicalist, embracing a materialism both wrong-headed and self-refuting. Haught dubs this a “metaphysics of the past” (59) that leads to “cosmic pessimism” (34) and an “ontology of death” (72).

Analogy tends to ignore science in looking toward a perfect, timeless, transcendent and mysterious realm beyond this world which is praiseworthy only when viewed sacramentally. Haught vigorously separates himself from what was his own earlier posture and, notably, from two of its prime expositors, Augustine and Aquinas. His chief criticism of this standpoint is its unwillingness “to look for meaning in the still unfinished story of a temporal universe” (40). Haught labels it the “metaphysics of the eternal present” (61).

Anticipation fully embraces new discoveries of science along with the uniqueness of human consciousness. It situates religion as the subjective heart, or “interiority,” of the cosmic story, avowing that the unplanned and unfinished universe will gradually manifest “more being, richer meaning and more intense beauty” (154). Thus arises hope not only for the redemption of humans but for the entire cosmos. Consequently, Haught denominates his stance a “metaphysics of the future” (88).

Thanks Charles G. Conway’s helpfully summary in his review of Haught’s book The New Cosmic Story

“Everything happens for a reason” points to the first two views. Archeonomically, we think that if we find out the source of everything, it will all be illuminated. If we can just understand the first few microseconds of the big bang everything will make sense. Scientists do this and see the world as a lifeless series of cause and effect. The universe is not awakening to mind and meaning (and beyond); it is working out the natural consequences of original laws that are brutal and impersonal.  Christians do this kind of thinking when they look back to the beginning and extrapolate all kinds of laws from the story of the garden. We live in service to the past and hope for a return to it. But Jesus has begun the New Creation which anticipates a completion that is still not yet. When we do the works of God we are participating in something new. We are not going back to the garden, we are moving forward with Jesus into something new and science shows that the cosmos is participating in that, and always has been. There is a correlation between how God chose to create us and everything using matter and energy in an ever unfolding and yet unfinished universe and the New Creation that Jesus inaugurates. It all works together so beautifully. God truly is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but this does not mean that our existence is static, or that God is. God has created a universe that is a dramatic revelation of conscious minds in human bodies that were capable of being inhabited by God that we might know face to face where we are heading and who is taking us there.

The analogical view has been the most influential in Christian theology. It’s original, or at least most famous expositor, was Plato. He imagined a world of ideas or “forms” that was somewhere beyond this world. The goal of humanity was to escape the mortal incarceration of our human bodies and this time bound universe to go somewhere else. The animating spark of humanity is the soul and it is part of this other world and longs to return to it. “Everything happens for a reason” corresponds with this view in that sense that even though none of this makes sense some day we will be free of this mess. This same thinking inspired the notion that our souls go to heaven when we die. Matter is corrupted but there is something incorruptible that goes on for ever. So the reason might make sense to some god somewhere else but I don’t know how that applies to me right here and right now. This dualism has been destructive in many ways for Christian theology and the personal faith of many.

The anticipatory  view is what I came to when I read John 9. John Haught finds the unfolding future in the past because it is all part of the same story. The narrative of the cosmos corresponds to the becoming and revealing to which Jesus points in his answer to the disciples. That the works of God should be made manifest in  us. Our hope is in the completion of the story. The universe can’t be complete yet 1) because science shows that it is expanding and 2) the story isn’t over yet. So we see where we are heading and hope with all our hearts. When something new happens, it is happening from the future and pointing us toward our destiny. God is redeeming time in time and making all things new. God may have promised in the past but the direction of the promise is from the future and we are moving toward it together.

This is a major reorientation for me. I have only begun to wrap my mind around it, but it helps me make better sense of suffering. I don’t need to look into the past to know why. I don’t need to look into some other reality to be saved from now. I can look into this unfolding story of the cosmos that began billions of years ago and anticipate the future that God has promised. The synchronicity of giving this talk then hearing this podcast two days later amazed me so I had to try and share some of it with you. HMU with questions!

Starbucks’ Implicit Bias is Our Bias

starbucks implicit biasToday Starbucks closed all of it’s coffee shops in the morning to train their employees on implicit bias. I want to talk about this too, though I think my tiny blog might get lost in the internet noise. I have friends (mostly white) who are interested in this conversation because it seems to highlight a construct that divides people instead of unites them. Why would we dig around in our experience for negativity? Isn’t the world already negative enough?  I was inspired this weekend by John A. Powell’s gentleness in approaching the conversation. I think he’s on to something and I want to run with what he’s given us.

John A. Powell was interviewed by Krista Tippett on her radio show/podcast “On Being” in 2015. You can read the full transcript or listen to it HERE. He spoke about the basic human need of belonging. “The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health. And if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.” This resonated with me deeply 1) because I am a human being and 2) because Circle of Hope, the church of which I am a pastor, believes that belonging is the core of the Good News that Jesus brought us. Belonging to one Body, interconnected and so not alone we are the “anti-alone-ness”, is the destiny of  humanity and the fullness of Creation’s purpose. When that dependence on togetherness becomes part of a public conversation, my ears perk up. Dr. Powell had much to say that I think you needed to hear, but I’ll quote just a few paragraphs.

How do we make [belonging] infectious? How do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to sort of organize around anger and hate. And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions, certainly Gandhi, certainly the Reverend Dr. King — and I always remind people he was a reverend. It wasn’t just Dr. King. Even though he came out of a violent revolution — Nelson Mandela — he just — again, I met him personally — he just exuded love. And as you know, he had a chance to leave prison early. He refused to unless it included structuring the country. He actually tried to actually lean into a notion of beloved community. He actually didn’t want the blacks to control or dominate the whites. He wanted to create — so his aspiration — and he’s loved. Even today, he’s loved in South Africa, and he’s loved around the world.

morgan freeman even though he's sleezyIn Circle of Hope we have received this message. We believe in the power of love, or at least we have declared this when we pledged allegiance to Jesus who, as God, is love. The one who died for all was showing us what love was. 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” We have become not only advocates for this new perspective on love, but also demonstrators of it. Circle of Hope is a living experiment designed to prove the power of love. The way John A. Powell speaks, at least in my earbuds, exudes love too. Later in the conversation he makes it clear that he is not a theist, but his attraction to this love pulls him toward its source. He is a co-conspirator with Christ if not yet an avowed participant in Christ’s resurrection life.

Powell’s approach is inherently generous. Gandhi’s, King’s and Mandela’s love as individuals has been deconstructed. Hero worship is not allowed anymore, which is fine, but leaves us with no champions for love, except for Jesus I guess. I like how Powell steps around Mandela’s violent beginnings. Just watch “Invictus” to get some warm feelings for Nelson Mandela (I hope the warm feelings can transcend the fact that newly exposed Morgan Freeman is the actor). Mandela was incredibly creative and persistent in uniting post-apartheid South Africa. No political conflict of which I am aware has been more creatively transformed.

These political titans, Gandhi, King and Mandela, are good to mention because they are well known. They are well known because they changed the world in big ways. But they were successful because they were able to build a movement. This seems obvious but must be said because, today, it seems hard for any of our conversations to coalesce into anything. Every individual has their own opinion and experience which is infinitely valuable. That is a critique and a statement of my truest belief. Yes, every individual is infinitely valuable and their experience matters. This is true because God loves them, but also because I do. I do not have infinite capacity to demonstrate that love to them or to even know them, but I’m following my leader. To have a movement that transforms the environment as much as it needs to be transformed we will need to follow some sub-God level leaders. This will require the generosity that Powell extends to his heroes. It will require enough of us to follow someone who is close enough–someone whom we can get behind enough to make something happen. They will not reflect every one of our beliefs or speak to every one of our experiences, but if we are to harness our belonging to make a world in which we want our children to live then we must go with someone for the sake of a cause.

Starbucks is not an adequate leader and their training today is mostly a publicity stunt in my opinion. But the writing is on the wall, corporations will be the moral leaders of the future. I can lament this even as I accept that far less than optimal future and find brands to buy from which reflect my values (this may be more valuable political action than most people think). If rich people are running the world, and politicians continue to sell themselves for the privilege to unleash corporations on us, then I would like a corporate leader who might do some good. Thus, implicit bias training is border-line good.

John A. Poweel is gentle

John A. Powell

But I have friends who think it is far from good. Again, they believe that this emphasis on bias might actually instill in us the negative biases it intends to address. Which came first, the bias or the bias training? John A. Powell spoke about this with Krista Tippett,

It’s sort of unfortunate we call it “bias” because it’s really — implicit means unconscious or not fully conscious. And the reality is everyone has that. That’s the human nature. And what’s in our implicit biases are social. They’re not individual. So in a society where we treat blacks a certain way — and we’ve done this. We looked at 11 million words that most people use over their lifetime. How frequently do you use “black” with negative? And it’s very high. It’s like 40-50 percent of the time. So all the time. That’s what you hearing, that’s what you’re seeing, that’s what you’re hearing. It’s the air that we breathe. You breathe that until you’re an adult, you’re going to have those associations. Whites will have them. Blacks will have them. Latinos will have them. If you have negative associations in a society about women, men will have them and women will have them. But they’re social. So we have negative associations in this society about Muslims. They don’t have those negative associations in Turkey. So those associations are social. So part of it means that we have to look at what those associations are and where they come from. And we can create some prophylactic thing. But ultimately, we need to change the environment itself.

The question is not “Am I biased?”; the question is “Is there bias?” This is a very important distinction for anyone who reacts negatively to the idea of implicit bias training. This part of Krista Tippett and John A. Powell’s conversation comes after a well made case that human beings not only long to belong but they inherently belong. Our togetherness is automatic, not only psychologically but socially. We are connected whether we like it or not, but luckily most of us do. The narrative of separateness is not as strong as we have made it to be. For 1) it breeds loneliness like the plague, but 2) it tries to erase something un-erasable – our brain’s demand for patterns and our heart’s desire to belong. So when we evaluate something at an individual level, no generalization is true.

Some white person might say “I am not biased about black people” which, ironically, is basically a racist thing to say in some company. And now the conversation is about finding the bias that this bias-denier has. That person is not getting with the neo-orthodoxy so they must be against us (the orthodox). John A. Powell steps around this horrible foundation for a conversation by evaluating the environment, not the individual. This is not about you, this is about the environment. And if you discover you have bias, fine, but we all agree there IS bias, and until there isn’t WE have a problem. It’s a very communitarian way to have this conversation. It saves the individual from guilt which often derails the conversation (Guilt is never good motivation to do anything), and it unites us in the WE of which we are a part already and which we all need to become more aware.

I welcome this direction and I think we Christians are especially well suited for it because we are explicitly connected. Our explicit bias is for connection and welcome, whether we actually achieve our desires is up for debate. Nonetheless, we know what we want and what Jesus wants, to be One body in Christ. The earliest description of the church in Acts 2 (shout out to Pentecost, the most underrated Christian Holiday!) says that they shared everything in common. I don’t see why we can’t hold these biases in common too.

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