The Critical Mindset

One of the most powerful aspects of Christianity is how it provides an ideal: the character of Jesus Christ.

This provides individuals and communities with several opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to more fully apprehend this idea.
  2. The opportunity to compare oneself to the same ideal.
  3. The opportunity to take steps toward this idea through spiritual disciplines and acts of virtue.
  4. The opportunity to help others along the path to the ideal.

The danger is the development of the critical mindset. We can easily turn the sharp instrument of logic necessary for comparing ourselves to our understanding of Christ’s virtue into an instrument for apprehending the flaws of others.

The perception of the sinfulness of other people is a powerful asset in that it can keep us safe from wolves in sheep’s clothing. On the other hand it can lead to a disdain and distrust for those we perceive to fall too short, whether Christians or not.

My biggest moral failure, aside from a general idolatrous malaise, is my tendency to see the weakest and most shameful in somebody and instantly file it away as a weakness. I can think of dozens of circumstances in life wherein a disagreement lead to somebody insulting me, which allowed me to exploit said weakness in a vindictive and very hurtful way.

Some of you may know exactly what I’m talking about either because I’ve done it to you, you’ve seen me do it, or you or somebody you know does this. It’s an ugly way to live. I typically use this particular skill as a sour grapes thing. I’ve joked before when my friends move away (they inevitably do because I live in a town that is hated by most of its residents who find themselves unable to leave due to insufficient income and expensive housing costs) that I’ll “think of everything I can’t stand about them and then I won’t miss them.” This strategy actually works. I’ve done it. I’ve also used it to justify the end of a friendship whenever somebody hurts somebody I care about. I’ll just tell my wife the list of horrible things I’ve perceived about this person and say, “Yeah, we’d be better off not having them in our lives.”

Jesus says this:

Mat 7:1-5 ESV  “Judge not, that you be not judged. (2)  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (3)  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (4)  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? (5)  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Jesus’ brother puts it this way:

Jas 4:8-12 ESV Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (9) Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. (10) Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (11) Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (12) There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

The critical mindset has to be turned inward before one ever judges a brother. And even then, when Jesus spoke of judging, he equated it with taking “the speck out of your brother’s eye.” For Jesus, judging without self-criticism is wrong. But more importantly, judging, to be rightly done, must be for the purposes of helping a brother not hurting them or condemning them.

John Calvin on Good Teaching

In a remarkable little comment on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, John Calvin made these remarks:

Imitators of me…Paul had [in the previous chapter] there brought forward his own example in confirmation of his doctrine. Now, in order that the Corinthians may understand that this would be becoming in them, he exhorts them to imitate what he had done, even as he had imitated Christ.

Here there are two things to be observed—first, that he prescribes nothing to others that he had not first practised himself; and, secondly, that he directs himself and others to Christ as the only pattern of right acting. For while it is the part of a good teacher to enjoin nothing in words but what he is prepared to practise in action, he must not, at the same time, be so austere, as straightway to require from others everything that he does himself, as is the manner of the superstitious. For everything that they contract a liking for they impose also upon others, and would have their own example to be held absolutely as a rule. The world is also, of its own accord, inclined to a misdirected imitation, (κακοζηλίαν)1 and, after the manner of apes, strive to copy whatever they see done by persons of great influence. We see, however, how many evils have been introduced into the Church by this absurd desire of imitating all the actions of the saints, without exception. Let us, therefore, maintain so much the more carefully this doctrine of Paul—that we are to follow men, provided they take Christ as their grand model, (πρωτότυπον,) that the examples of the saints may not tend to lead us away from Christ, but rather to direct us to him.[1]

In sum:

  1. Good teachers prescribe nothing that they do not practice themslves.
  2. They direct others to the ideal, not just to their own practice.
  3. Good teachers must not require others to immediately become exactly like themselves for they might fall short of the ideal or be expecting unrealistic transformation.

[1] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 349–350.

My virtue ethics blog

I started a blog on virtue ethics as a way to reflect on something that might interest people who don’t care about random theological musings. Anyway, it was periodically really popular if it got a retweet by an “internet famous person”, but otherwise I could write several posts in a row and the only readers were my 8 email subscribers.

I’m most likely going to stop paying for it.

I’ll write about the same topic here.

Is Job by an “unreliable narrator”?

In church today we sang the song that repeats, “You give and take away.” And I suddently recalled that in the book of Job, right after Job says that the LORD gives and takes, the narrator says “Job did not…charge God with wrong.” Here is the passage:

Job 1:20-22 ESV Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. (21) And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (22) In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

And yet, when the LORD confronts Job toward the end of the book, the LORD says that Job did not sin, but he does accuse Job of charging him with wrong:

Job 40:1-2 ESV And the LORD said to Job: (2) “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Later in the story the LORD says that Job spoke rightly concerning him (Job 42:7).

The question, of course, is where? Where did Job do so? If the book of Job is in the genre of wisdom literature and it’s point is to, through story, make for philosophical discussion and to obliquely make a particular philosophical argument then it makes sense for the book to be like a riddle. Indeed, part of gaining wisdom is learning to understand the riddles of the wise (Proverbs 1:1-7). And the book of Job, it seems, fits into that category.

Anyway, I think that the book is trying to get the reader to decide between voices.

Evangelism and “The Neg”

When I worked at a coffee shop I observed a man in line make a rude comment and a woman who did not know him said, “There are ladies present.” He said, “Where?” She then spent the rest of her time in line explaining her lady-ness to him. Then she sat at his table. It blew my mind. I later learned from conversation with a co-worker to whom I explained this event that this is a flirting device known as “the neg.”

According to Dr. Jeremy Nicholson, there is a well known-mechanism for this guy’s success. Here’s his explanation of the research:

Walster (1965) investigated the influence of momentary self-esteem on receptivity to the romantic advances of a stranger. The researcher arranged for a group of female participants to interact with a male research assistant who flirted with them. The female participants were then given positive or negative personality test feedback. After their self-esteem was increased or decreased in that way, they were asked to rate their liking for the male research assistant.

The results of the study indicated that women who had their self-esteem temporarily lowered found the male research assistant significantly more attractive than the women with temporary high-self esteem. Walster (1965) theorized that this effect occurred for two reasons. First, individuals who feel “imperfect” themselves may demand less in a partner. Second, a person usually has an increased need for acceptance and affection when their self-esteem is low. Overall then, when an individual is made to feel “low”, they find potential romantic partners more attractive.

Research by Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson (2003) explored the relationship between self-esteem and compliance with requests. Both male and female participants were asked to complete various measures of self-esteem, compliance, and coping behaviors. The results of their analysis supported the hypothesis that individuals with lower self-esteem are more compliant and agreeable to the requests of others. Thus, lower self-esteem appears to lead to greater compliance with requests (or demands) as well.

Anyway, this reminds me of the version of evangelism which involves asking people this series of questions:

  1. Do you think you’re a good person?
  2. Have you ever lied?
  3. What do you call a liar?
  4. Have you ever coveted?
  5. Have you ever murdered? The Bible says that whoever hates his brother has committed murder.
  6. So you’re a lying covetous murder?
  7. Are you a good person?
  8. If God judged you on the last day, what would you have to say for yourself?

This puts the person experiencing this onslaught into a similar state of lowered self-esteem and may make them more willing to listen to the offer of mercy made by God on the cross.

I’m not opposed to using rhetoric to help people believe the gospel. Paul used it. The question is whether or not the rhetoric has substance behind it and whether or not it can help people come to believe the gospel is true rather than merely comply with the requests of a person who made them feel bad. I’m neither for nor against using this technique to evangelize. I just noticed the similarity when I was thinking about sweet and sour sauce today.

Josephus: On why Moses is Superior to Greek Legislation

Below is Josephus’ comment on the superiority of Moses’s legislation to the Greek laws:

The reason why the constitution of this legislation was ever better directed to the utility of all than other legislations were, is this, that Moses did not make religion a part of virtue, but he saw and he ordained other virtues to be parts of religion; I mean justice, and fortitude, and temperance, and a universal agreement of the members of the community with one another; (171) for all our actions and studies, and all our words [in Moses’s settlement] have a reference to piety towards God; for he hath left none of these in suspense, or undetermined; for there are two ways of coming at any sort of learning and a moral conduct of life; the one is by instruction in words, the other by practical exercises. (172) Now, other lawgivers have separated these two ways in their opinions, and choosing one of those ways of instruction, or that which best pleased every one of them, neglected the other. Thus did the Lacedemonians and the Cretans teach by practical exercises, but not by words: while the Athenians, and almost all the other Grecians, made laws about what was to be done, or left undone, but had no regard to the exercising them thereto in practice. [1]

This is a remarkable observation of human nature. We’re naturally religious and superstitious. And while the logical arguments for virtue seem to hold, they are hardly capable of overcoming our superstitious desire to base our lives on our feelings and to expect a logical result. So Moses, instead of teaching religion as a part of virtue, Moses taught virtue as a part of religion and taught a religion that demanded virtue. Josephus goes on to argue that with respect to the two types of instruction in virtue, the law of Moses is superior because, “But for our legislator, he very carefully joined these two methods of instruction together; for he neither left these practical exercises to go on without verbal instruction, nor did he permit the hearing of the law to proceed without the exercises for practice…”[1]

 

References

[1] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

The Psychological Difficulty of 5-Point Calvinism

This isn’t an argument against Calvinism.

Nevertheless, a doctor friend once told me that the reason he couldn’t be a calvinist any more was that it stole his hope. He could, he reasoned, have no certainty that God wasn’t simply giving somebody the apparent gift of faith specifically in order to make them apostasize and have greater punishment in hell.

I think that the internal gymnatistic you have to go through in order to have positive hope as a Calvinist must be difficult. When I was still a Calvinist I just sort of puritanitcally thought, “Well, if God did that, I suppose it would be ok.”

But if you take things like Romans 9:10-29 as paradimatic:

Rom 9:10-29 ESV And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, (11) though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls– (12) she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” (13) As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (14) What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! (15) For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (16) So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (17) For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (18) So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (19) You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (20) But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (21) Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (22) What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, (23) in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– (24) even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (25) As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.'” (26) “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.'” (27) And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, (28) for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” (29) And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.”

Then you’re forced to think, if you’re being consistent, “My faith very well may be fake.”

The reason for this can be found in Romans 11:16-25:

Rom 11:16-25 ESV If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. (17) But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, (18) do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. (19) Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” (20) That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. (21) For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (22) Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (23) And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (24) For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (25) Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

But for the Calvinist the part above that says, “They were broken off because of their unbelief…” actually means “They had no faith because they were broken off…”

Your hope of receiving God’s grace comes not from “continuing in his kindness.” But rather from whether or not God secretly chose to make you do so.

I remember a sermon/podcast once wherein John Piper observed that highly analytical people gravitate toward Calvinism. But I would think that it’s more like to be people who either A) enjoy ambgiuity or B) have trouble detecting agency and therefore overcompensate by finding agency in every event.

There is research that indicates that individuals with high functioning autism tend toward atheism and the connection is made with their difficulty detecting agency. But as far as I know no research has been done connecting deterministic/free-will beliefs with autism.

Calvinist behavior online was, in the early days of the Internet, indistinguishable from Internet atheist behavior. And when 2009 rolled around and Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett made atheism cool again, it was remarkable how similarly the emboldened atheist behaviors were to Calvinists you’d run into at Christian retreats:

  1. Every discussion, no matter how unrelated, would turn into hostile proseltyzing.
  2. Any normal human concern no matter how sad, tragic, or recent would be brought up as evidence against God’s existence (atheists) or as something that “God did in order to show his glory to the select group of people in whose minds he already made his glory apparent.(Calvinists)”

Anyway, I think it’s best to let Romans 11 clarify what Romans 9 says rather than let Romans 9 be the background presupposition to Romans 11.

But there is also a difficulty for Arminians. For they may wonder, “What if I fall away at the last and my faith was for naught?” But Paul at least assumes this possibility and says, “So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” But the point isn’t to say one of these positions is right or wrong here. But just to point out the personal difficulties that may occur in those who see Romans 9 as a paradigm for every individual person.

Music Monday: Coheed’s Eraser

For those of sensitive ear, this song does have a bit of language.

My least favorite Coheed album is, by far, their newest. But this particular song is quite good.

The lyrics below are particularly awesome:

Turn the clocks back to the way things were
I never wanted to be this me
Erase, eraser
Show me back then the kid before the man
I don’t think this me is who I am

Now, I like who I am and the person I’ve become and am becoming. But it’s easy to see for almost everybody who is honest with themselves that they’re incomplete as they stand and that if they could, they would have done things differently.

In relationship to being a Christian, I think it’s true to say that everybody has two ideal selves: what we want to be and what God wants us to be. To find the intellectual solid ground where these no longer contradict one another is crucial for spiritual growth. But it is just as important to take the steps to get to our understanding of our ideal self that we currently have. And like I said, most of us can find places wherein we’ve actively opposed God’s will and also our own deepest desires to find our ideal self with the choices we’ve made.

This particular song, though mostly about artistic growth I think, brought these things to mind.

Jesus, Rhetoric, and Dialectic

In the past I’ve written pretty extensively about the difference between rhetoric and dialectic. The distinction between the two, I think, can be quite important for understanding Scripture. Here’s a short review:

  1. Dialectic is the art of using logic and facts in order to find what is true. In reference to discourse (written or spoken) it is essentially the posture of either science or exposition. It’s purpose is chiefly truth.
  2. Rhetoric is the art of determining what is persuasive use well as using it. It’s purpose is chiefly feeling.

Dialectic can be used rhetorically and rhetoric can be made to sound like dialectic to put on an air of intelligence. In one sense, dialectic is a form of rhetoric, as it invites careful attention, dispute, and acceptance of its claims once they are determined to be based on true evidence and valid argumentation. The combinations are as variable as are human motivations.

When reading the gospels (themselves a form of rhetoric) one of the places where Jesus is pretty clear about what makes for a morally whole and upright existence is his endorsement of honoring your parents by caring for them financially:

Mar 7:9-13 ESV  And he [Jesus] said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! (10)  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ (11)  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)– (12)  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, (13)  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Elsewhere, Jesus is fundamentally opposed to hating even enemies. Yet, when trying to snap people out of an insensibility of what is required of his disciples he says:

Luk 14:26 ESV  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Yet, one of the prime assumptions of Jesus’ ministry is that you will follow the ten commandments (Luke 18:20), love your neighbor, and that you desire to avoid eternal death by seeking eternal life. So when Jesus tells us to hate even our lives, is he telling us to have no joy, no pleasure, and no sense of self-preservation or self-love? Or is he proposing an outrageous overstatement to get us to consider the facts of the case, that you might not be up to the task of going to preach with him?

By the way, right after Jesus says this, he says that to be his disciple (at least to be his disciple in the sense of travelling with him) requires a careful consideration of the costs just as any war or building project requires.

One of the things I always hate (literally) about election season is the predilection of pundits to pile up a series of claims meant to arouse anger, love, or sympathy with how bad said pundit feels about this or that candidate and therefore you should vote and believe accordingly with no support other than appeal to emotions. The problem is that the rhetoric is not based on a solid foundation. “I feel really bad about [insert politician here], therefore s/he is unacceptable!” People mistake rhetoric (arousing emotions) for fact and argument (dialectic).

A similar mistake can be made with Jesus. Because we use sarcasm and “snark” so frequently, we often or maybe always seem to mistake it for argument. Not only are we handicapped because of our own sense of humor, but it’s not always easy to distinguish Jesus’ cues, because we aren’t with him and cannot hear his tone. To add to those two problems, it also feels unusual to think of the Bible as a book of humor.

It would seem that the best  practice is to compare Jesus’ apparently outrageous statements with his apparently literal ones as in the case mentioned above. Similar tactics could be used to understand Jesus’ apparent disdain for the syrophonecian woman. Jesus has taught that God would call people from east and west while the Israelites would miss out on the kingdom. So his apparently harsh attitude is rhetoric, suited for a purpose which was apparently achieved (the woman’s daughter was healed).

Can you think of other examples of the rhetoric dialectic distinction being helpful for understanding the gospels?