Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: doing theology

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.

Why I Love Jordan Peterson (But He’s Wrong)

Jordan Peterson and Jesus?

Many of my friends are fans of Jordan Peterson. They appreciate his pragmatic and inspiring call, particularly to men, to take responsibility for themselves, and become agents of good. “No matter how bad a situation is, you can make it worse.” This is a good mantra. He speaks passionately, to the point of being choked up. I appreciate his deep desire to speak the truth, and I love some of the archetypal inferences on human psychology that he’s been describing in his examination of Genesis in his current lecture series. But the examination of Biblical morality and human psychology cannot end with Genesis. In fact it ought not to even begin with Genesis. Properly, it begins with Jesus, who IS the Truth. Jesus is the Truth personally revealed. A commitment to Truth is a commitment to a living person. Following him requires daily meditation on who he is, who we are to him, and what he did in the first century as recorded in the New Testament.

What About the Prophets?

Jesus follows in a long line of Hebrew prophets who spoke out against the organization of human sinfulness in unjust power structures. He went around challenging these power structures and creating a new way of thinking and being which he announced as the Kingdom of God. I agree with much of Peterson’s examination of how sin began with Adam and Eve and self-consciousness, but Peterson overemphasizes the role of the individual in the shaping of society in my opinion. The individual speaking truth is his main hope as far as I can tell. I really do appreciate this perspective. When I was younger, heavily influenced by the elite Marxist intelligencia that Peterson thoroughly condemns, I was convinced that I ought to lead the revolution (hopefully nonviolently) in some way, shape or form; but I experienced a conversion. I was converted to a commitment to the Church. I chose a community of transformation over an ideological movement because I realized that no matter what the laws might say, real change is a matter of the human heart. Societal change would only occur with the transformation of millions if not billions of individual hearts, and God’s chosen means of that transformation was the Church—a community committed to the in-breaking Kingdom of God. In this regard I agree with Peterson, however, the heart that Jesus compels me to have is so heavy with compassion and grace for the poor and powerless–the outcast and the stranger–that I cannot help but sympathize and even mobilize with the social justice movements in our society that cry out with the voice of the Hebrew prophets and, dare I say, the voice of the Lord. Peterson would disagree with this conclusion.

These movements have many, many faults. Our participation at various levels with them requires our utmost creativity and resolve. We need daily discernment and much dialogue to effectively maintain our difference as Christ followers in the slough of bitter ideology that dominates the discourse and the practices of many (but certainly not all) who work for justice. I am still convinced, as I was when I was converted (now 15 years ago) from Marx’s revolution to Jesus’ revelation, that the best alternative for the world is the Church. We need to be committed to the reality that Jesus revealed and is revealing in himself. Our calling as the Church is to relate to each other and to our neighbors in a way that condemns and conquers the enmity of the world. This is third way thinking that prejudices peace and justice without using the weapons of the world—violence, coercion and hate. We are empowered to do this by a Holy Spirit who grows in each of us abundant love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Individuals Can’t Get all the Credit (and Blame)

Let us not be convinced by Peterson’s elevation of individual choice and truth as a means of salvation, as if preventing another Pol Pot or Stalin is the only thing we live for. I am not compelled by Peterson’s pragmatism. He assumes that history’s alternatives are limited to what governments and markets have done. The threat of human wickedness is not a new reality. The 20th century provided a horrifyingly powerful accelerant to the fire of human evil with the development of catastrophic technology, but it didn’t reveal a new facet of humanity; it magnified the old. It’s as old as Genesis (I think Peterson and I agree about this too–I love his common refrain in the Genesis lectures, “These people who wrote this [Genesis] were not dumb. They were bloody brilliant!”) But I do disagree that we should believe that individuals are powerful enough to do as much evil as we have done if they were not organized in a system greater than themselves. As early as the age of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, the trend of the rich to organize against the poor was decried justly, and with the authority of God. Our individual evils have the capacity to coalesce and metastasize in unpredictable ways. Individual self reflection is absolutely necessary, yes, but there is more to it than that.

I follow Walter Wink’s thinking in “The Powers that Be” (a good book- I recommend it to you). Wink suggests that societal injustice, though begun by individuals, develops to the point that it takes on a reality and even a will of its own. Wink attributes this to spiritual forces (which Peterson rarely acknowledges). But even if we consider social injustice strictly sociologically and historically, it is reasonable to conclude that the powers are now so complex and endemic that it is nigh on impossible to deconstruct them without years (maybe hundreds of years) of concerted effort by millions if not billions of individuals. Changing the laws will not achieve transformation. Just as changing the laws about discrimination against trans people in Canada will not necessarily make the lives of trans people in Canada better (which is the debate that has gotten Jordan Peterson famous).

I do not have much hope for this hundred year, billion person project, but I do have hope in creating an alternative society in the Church that lives a life in service and discipleship of Christ who goes to the least of these and will judge us by our service to them (Matthew 25). I think Jesus would likely hang out with trans people if he had his first advent in 21st century Canada instead of first century Palestine. I do not demand a grand narrative for why or how people of color, gay people, or trans people are so poorly treated and disproportionately disadvantaged in our society (even if some individuals aren’t and some individuals who are not part of a minority group are equally disadvantaged). I do, however, demand justice from my elected officials, and I will use the tiny power I have to join with the Hebrew prophets of old to speak for those who do not have as much voice as I do. This is not my primary task (that’s building the church which is a grand narrative that lasts into eternity with its Head, Jesus, the risen Christ), but it would be poor discipleship of my Master to not do what I can when I can as often as I can.

Circle of Hope is an Alternative

In Circle of Hope we can do more together as a collective if we can agree about our task—we live in the Truth, with the Truth, including others in the Truth through cells and Sunday meetings, facilitating a 24/7 community that is a viable alternative to the powers that be and the discord which dominates all sides of political discourse. Our mutuality as people of justice has been a distinguishing characteristic since we began. We have participated with many justice movements, but we have always maintained our particularly christocentric stance. We participate as “invasive separatists.” We agree with social justice movements as much as we actually agree with them. We recognize their need for transformation even as we join with them in solidarity. We are not corrupted by their ideologies, though this is a real danger if we don’t maintain a robust dialogue among us.

I love Jordan Peterson because he makes me think, but I am not going to follow him, and I recommend that my friends take his insights with the grains of salt I am suggesting. I love his Jungian analysis of human behavior and the Genesis stories, but I am disagreeing with his political advocacy more and more as I see him engaging with trans people around the C-16 Bill in Canada that passed in May of this year. Regarding his demeanor and some of what he has said, kindness is not weakness, and weakness is not as weak as Peterson thinks. As Christian-esque as he appears with his year-long meditation on Genesis and his frequent quotations form the Sermon on the Mount I wonder about his relationship with Truth, whose name is Jesus the Crucified. I hope, if he hasn’t already, that he can access a personal connection to the Truth himself, through his zealous commitment to personal truth that has made him famous and worthy of conversation on my blog.