In my intro post I quoted a piece in which Syd Hielema suggests a particular posture toward difficult questions and issues. He calls it “Holy Uncertainty.” Syd goes on to suggest the “better/worse” moral compass supercedes the “right/wrong” one in most cases.
I stated that behind this problem is the false belief that it is our job to identify right and wrong, white and black. That is my current “operating theory” and I want to test it out publicly.
My theory began to take form when I was in a time of personal reflection and healing, and was further shaped when I worked as a chaplain/spiritual director in an addiction treatment center. It is centered on the question of what “knowing good and evil” is.
I was introduced to the concept and behaviour of “black and white” or “all or nothing” thinking in addicts. Addiction to a substance or activity changes the way the addict sees the world, and the way they think. They move to extremes in their thinking. They cannot understand shades and nuances. I saw that at my work there.
But I also have seen it in the church. I vividly remember the time in the early 80’s when an elder interrupted a council meeting by standing, throwing the King James Bible on the table, and as he marched out saying “If ve can’t all aggrree dat dit is de one en only trrue vord of Godt, den I can’t be wit you anymore!” Looking back with my new knowledge, I can see that this man saw only one version of the Bible as “white” or “good” and felt strongly and fearfully that the newly introduced NIV was moving toward “black” or “evil.” One illustration will have to suffice to illustrate this point. More are possible.
So where do we as humans and as Christians get this idea that we are to be arbiters and declarers of what is actually and ultimately good and what is ultimately evil?
Some years ago I did a quick study of the combination of the words “good and evil” in scripture. The first place you end up is in Genesis 2 verses 9 and 17 where the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil is mentioned. The next mention is this one, with the serpent speaking into Eve’s ear:
To know good and evil, to eat the forbidden fruit, is to be reaching for something that is to be God’s alone: the knowing of what is ultimately good and what is actually evil. Mankind were exiled from God’s presence for doing this! They, to use 12 step language, made themselves their own highest power, thereby breaking relationship with the Creator.
To me now, whenever I displace God as my highest power, I am again partaking in fruit that is forbidden, and repeating what Eve and Adam did. All that works ok for me in my mind, but the next step is the challenge. Maybe we have no business at all trying to decide and discern what true good is. Maybe we are called to do our best with the Spirit’s help to keep moving toward the gate that Jesus opened, the path back to walking in the garden in the cool of the day in full fellowship with a God who we leave that kind of knowledge to. Meanwhile, on our journeys, we let better/worse be our compass, because ultimate right/wrong is not an area we were given dominion in. Nor should we. We are to acknowledge how veiled our certainty really is, and we are to hold sacred the space where our certainty ends and God’s knowledge begins.
Thats my operating theory at this time.
On June 28, Syd Hielema posted a reflection in the faith nurture section of the CRC Network in which he introduced, as his second point, the idea and practice of two different moral compasses. He was speaking into the context of a particular struggle, but I want to examine the theology and possible biblical source of this apart from that issue.
Here is the link to the original posting:
The comment thread is worth reading. For me what stood out is the absence of neutrality in the responses. As some imply in the comments, there are clearly deeper previous suppositions at play when we discuss moral compass in association with a hot potato topic. What I want to do is think “out loud” about a deeper (confessional?) aspect of that one idea.
Here is the key excerpt I am speaking of:
2. Every Christian I know uses two different moral compasses, both rooted in Scripture: the “right/wrong” moral compass and the “better/worse” moral compass.
Most moral decisions are guided by biblical teachings on right and wrong. But a number of times in Scripture we see a “better/worse” moral compass superseding the right/wrong one. It’s wrong to be a prostitute, but it was better for Tamar to become a prostitute than to allow her father-in-law Judah’s unjust behavior to continue (Gen. 38). Slavery is wrong, but it was so systemically entrenched in the Roman Empire that any community that tried to abolish it would be massacred. Thus, it was better strategically for Paul’s mission work that he not seek its abolition but instead encourage born-again masters and slaves to act as godly as they could within an evil societal institution while he focused on other social justice issues (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-4:1).
I could give many more examples from Scripture where the “better/worse” compass supersedes the “right/wrong” one. Might the 1829 elders of Third Presbyterian Charleston have confused a better/worse biblical teaching with a right/wrong one?
First, the way Syd makes uncertainty “Holy” does not sit well with me and feels dangerous. I am more comfortable with a posture I would call “Veiled Certainty” or “Sacred Uncertainty.” I have gone from “sure doctrines” more toward “operating theories.”
My current posture has grown in me as I have experienced life. It is largely a result of the dissolution of “certainties” I was taught. Pentecostals, I was taught, were severely misguided, yet I met one that was more serious about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit than I was. Me, in all my youthful certainty of his being misguided and “forced to fake” speaking in tongues to get respect in their churches. Catholics were certainly doomed to the place below the purgatory they had made up, yet I met some that were active in the Kingdom of God and body of Christ in ways that humbled me in all my sureness of their doom. And so on. It’s quite a list. Just so no one gets freaked out, some things have become more sure over time. I am more certain than ever about the theology of “calling” we used to articulate, for example. So, stay calm, not everything has crumbled. In fact, if you need to hear it to keep my words credible to you, I believe more than ever that Jesus lived and died and rose again. But I do believe it in a different way than the way I was taught.
Second, what Syd describes regarding a better/worse compass resonates with me, and I find myself baffled and unfortunately angry often with those who, to me, rigidly advocate for a strict right/wrong with nothing in between.
So, in my next post, I will share why I have come to think that at the core of the moral compass issue is the false belief that it is our job to identify right and wrong, white and black, and why I think we are mainly left with living on a towards better and towards worse continuum instead.
My Theology has changed over time. I was recently thinking that through, and thought I’d document it here.
First, there is a sense, but one I can’t quite give clear evidence of, that most of the “issues” we argue about inside the church are smoke and mirrors for another deeper problem that we don’t want to talk about or don’t know how.
For a recent council meeting I made a presentation on how anxiety in a congregational system creates whack-a-mole issues popping up, and how leaders get fooled into thinking they are actually solving things by dealing only with the technical issue as it presents itself, rather than the adaptive issue of the systemic angst that drives the moles to the surface. (hey, my presentations are sometimes very plain yet highfalutin).
Anyway, I’m asking of our denominational situation: “What are we missing here?” “What is the deeper issue or struggle?”
Second, my thinking has changed on a lot of theology (and how to live out my faith) since I was a kid in catechism. I am convinced it is still solidly Reformed. The change is primarily explained by a shift to understanding everything related to God in relational terms. My starting point is “God is about relationship” and my theological rubric all falls into place below that tenet (or “yoke” to use an old Jewish term).
God’s actions in the OT after the fall were all about teaching or discipling a selected people into effective relationship with God. It didn’t work out on the people end. Repeatedly.
The actions of Jesus in the NT were all about opening a way back to relationship with the Triunity or godhead.
The parables of Jesus have shaped my fresh understanding the most. The Samaritan in the parable had a way of “being” in relation to other humans that imaged God’s compassion and caring to excess (eternity) well. Not so the religious leaders of the selected people. They were focused on “doing” as the original question to Jesus indicated. So there is one place I learned something new. Another is the Joy of Finding/Lost Son parable, where again the figure representing the God mankind is distant from is a compassionate and caring character but a wimp to those focused on “doing.” The wandering son comes to realize he is ‘out of bounds’ and far out of relationship, and his best hope is to become a ‘slave’ of the Father. So he returns, and the Father immediately and extravagantly restores the full relationship. All’s ready to be well, until the homeboy brother arrives. He is not willing to join the restoration of relationship. He reveals, in his rant, that he sees himself as a slave (all these years I’ve slaved for you!…). He might still be there, out standing in his field, arms crossed and a cross look in his face refusing to take up the cross of relationship…
There are two more parts to this change in perspective. One is reflecting on and learning about fruit of the spirit. They frustrate us, because they are hard to measure and possible to fake, for a time. Specific sins, well they are measurable! Christian schoolteacher spotted at a store on Sunday! – fired! That’s easy. I spent some time thinking about the difference between forbidden fruit and bidden (or encouraged) fruit. And a whole new vista unfolded that I won’t add to this explanation. The second key part to this journey has been reading about, practicing, and gaining appreciation for the timeless wisdom distilled into the 12 steps (couldn’t resist a pun). Again, I won’t elaborate, but it is huge!
So here is where I end up. My pinnacle illustration/sermon used to be the “dirty cup sermon” (in the way that J Eppinga’s signature was the blue marble). But now I have one that came to me when applying Practical Relational Theology to the ten commandments. It is called the “ten posts” sermon, and I preached it on Easter.
Here is a most succinct presentation, starting with a situation I ask you to imagine:
Imagine you are a parent in a multi-child family. You or your spouse are being moved by the employer to a home you’ve never seen. You arrive in the family van, and you go through the exploration process (imagine it for yourself – kids claiming rooms, you imagining where you will sit and read etc etc.). Eventually most of you move out the sliding glass doors to the backyard. You see a swingset, which a few of the kids head for right away, you see a garden patch, and a sandbox, and other things. And you appreciatively walk out further into the yard with the intent of looking back at the whole view. Suddenly, as you are walking, you realize the yard just drops off into a massive canyon!
My question is, as a parent, what are you going to do? In that moment?
Well, the short version is “you are going to set some boundaries, make some rules, immediately!” Again, you fill in the details.
Then, you call the lumberyard, and you order 10 posts and 613 boards to build a fence.
Phew. Everyone is safe.
(this is the point where most of our religious understanding stops and stays)
Sometime later, as you are sitting in the yard, inside the fence, one of your children comes to you, and with a ‘you are really going to love me for this look on their face’ tell you that two of the others children are outside the fence! You immediately investigate, and sure enough they have pried some boards loose and gone out. You go out to seek your lost ones. But as you are seeking them, and feeling the pain of their not respecting the boundaries you created, you realize that your relationship with the child who told you about the lost ones is not what you want it to be either. That child thinks they are earning your love only by staying inside the bounds. That is not intimate, respectful relationship just as much as the out of bounds ones are not respecting relationship either.
(this is God’s dilemma with us)
How do you create a situation where the strength of the relationship is the main binding force?
Well, before you know it your carpenter son has come along and taken all the boards out from between the posts and built a cross out of them and died on it. Just the ten posts remain. He did that so that relationship could be chosen.
And all of us who believe in what that carpenter did to restore relationship with our heavenly parent, now live in a different world than we learn about a children. We are actually free to wander outside the posts. But as we wander further, we will feel the strain on the relationship with God. If we are paying attention, that is. And we will realize what is happening, and we will turn around (repent) and come back and be welcomed. Appreciating the love of the Father and Son for us, and loving being in unencumbered (naked) relationship because we have no need to hide, will keep us close, and will cause our lives to produce the fruit of the Spirit without much doing on our part. We just have to “be” in God’s presence.
So there you have it.
This is why I get concerned and troubled when people seem obsessed with declaring others “out of bounds.” I don’t see it as my role. In fact I’m too busy tracking and working on how I wander. I can tell people about having wandered and come back, I can tell people if I am in that kind of relationship with them that they are in dangerous territory, but the choice of remaining in the relationship is ultimate theirs.
I had the distinct pleasure to be playfully “called” on overfunctioning recently. I was caught doing a task that was designated to be done by someone else. Though there were practical reasons to be doing what I was, the challenge was legitimate. The pleasure came from realizing something I had been trying to explain in a teaching context some time earlier had “stuck” for someone and was not part of their way of looking at things, along with their way of teasing the pastor that taught it. Great stuff.
This web page raises the question of whether you are a “control freak” as a layperson (or pastor) in a church. Control freak is a version of overfunctioner. I have been the person described, and am at times still tempted to just “take over” a responsibility that is really someone else’s, simply because I think I can do it better and/or I then will know it has been done (instead of wondering) and also, because I don’t like seeing failure or feeling the awkwardness of something going wrong.
It’s been an interesting last seven days. I’ve had four significant conversations in that time, and when I sat down with the intention of finishing a post about Expectations, I felt a strong urge to write about a seemingly bizarre incident I learned a lot from. That incident had come up in several of the recent conversations.
I might still finish the one on Expectations, but will share this first.
In my personal musings I suddenly realized that there was a strong possibility that if I did not do contractual pastoral work in congregations, I’d possibly become a “Done” – someone who still has most of his Christian faith intact, but rejects the institutional organized church as the best place in which to live it out. This recognition shocked me a bit, and I suddenly felt like a kind of hypocrite, challenging myself with the question: “if you don’t believe in the organized church, is it authentic to work within it still?” I have not answered that yet, but by not resigning I guess in some way I have. This post is a beginning to trying to sort out my struggle.
Click here to follow my first round of thinking this through: https://pastorpete.wordpress.com/peteillogical-reflections/am-i-really-a-done/