Belong, Believe and Become: Re-ordering the Church in the Image of the Trinity

In a CT article published last year, the author invites churches to move from a “believe, become, belong” sequence to one where people can “belong, believe, become.” Churches ought to be a place where people can first belong, and in so doing, help them believe, and eventually become. While it is understandable that full membership in our churches is reserved to those who believe the foundational Christian beliefs and are committed to character formation, churches ought to be open for everyone to walk in, experience generous hospitality, warmth, and fellowship.

This approach shifts from seeing the church as the gatekeepers of true belief and guardians of good Christian character to it as being a place where those who eventually will have true beliefs and good Christian character can first belong. In short, the church ought to be less of an exclusive club that makes those still with wrong beliefs or wrong behavior unwelcome.

Yet, just as it is a problem on the conservative end of the spectrum where people find it hard to belong, we have on the liberal end, a problem where belief and discipleship are insignificant. As we rearrange the sequence to facilitate “easy belonging”, we ought to also see all the three– belong, believe & become– as equally important parts of the Christian faith and church practice. Let me illustrate the Trinitarian basis for these three facets that are so interconnected that to neglect any one facet would compromise the other facets as well.

The three facets– belong, believe & become– are functions that correspond to the three persons of the Trinity. Given that we are prone to prioritizing and arranging these functions into an order of importance, it is pivotal that we recognize the equality of those functions as evident from the equality of persons within the Trinity. After all, the tasks undertaken by each person of the Trinity are done together, and yet, they are– to use John McIntyre’s term– “terminatively” carried out by a specific member of the Trinity. Care ought to be taken to not collapse the function of one member to another as though we have an undifferentiated unity. Likewise, care ought to be taken to not make their functions separate so as to affirm only diversity. As McIntyre writes,

Thus the creation of the world is the work of the whole Trinity, with the fiat of the Father, the creation being ‘by the Word’ and the Spirit as a brooding presence, but it terminates or has its completion through the Father. In the case of the incarnation, it is a work common to the whole of the Trinity, having its source in the will of the Father, with the Holy Spirit appearing at the conception, and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in its goal and ultimate issue it is the work of the Son. The presence of God in believers, in the Church, in history, and in the world is the work of the entire Trinity, but in its implementation, it is fulfilled by the Spirit. [The Shape of Pneumatology, 82].

The call to belong to the family of faith flows from the person and work of God the Father. By virtue of both his function (as the creator) and title (Father–paternitās), the entire creation belongs to Him. As the Psalmist illustrates it, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (24:1), which includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. All things belong to Him and there is nothing in the world that is outside the purview of God’s sovereignty. Although the complete appropriation of our identity as God’s children is for the redeemed– “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us– that we should be called the children of God” (1 Jn 3:1), Romans 5:8 propels the church to love every sinner because “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

Similarly, the call to believe flows from the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the one who invites us to believe and the One in whom we believe; He is the messenger and the message; He is the chief priest and the sacrifice. True belonging to the family of God in this new covenant rests on the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and is appropriated by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Finally, Christian becoming is by the enabling work of the Holy Spirit. As the indwelling Spirit, He is both the counselor and the advocate who sanctifies individuals caught within their distinct needs and oddities. In this sense, the Spirit’s “incarnation”, if you will, is not as a generic human teacher but as a personal trainer of individuals situated in unique conditions. As the Spirit of Truth, He forms our inner being, both as individuals and as communities, by leading us into truth and freedom.

To belong, believe, and become is a useful rearrangement of sequence– a corrective to the overprotective tendencies within the church that hinder the mission of God. Yet, it is pivotal to understand that the rearrangement is not an order that illustrates a priority of importance; rather, the sequence illustrates a functional priority in the Trinitarian order that begins with the love of the Father (to whom we belong), that issues the Son (in whom we believe), who together issue the Spirit (by whom we become).

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A Lament for Unnao and Kathua

“Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?”

Around this time last year
a teenage girl lured by the promise of employment,
imprisoned, gang-raped and sold.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”

Lord of the nations, are you not the Lord of mine too?
How long will you be silent?
Her despairing soul, utterly hopeless,
her plight unnoticed that compelled her to self-immolate,
Nameless and invisible, she cried:

“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me,
While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

While awaiting justice, she receives a report
not of reparations and relief
but one that escalates her grief
the news of her father’s death
caused not by old age, accident or sickness
but by the merciless beatings with blunt sticks and clubs.
Fourteen injuries in all said the postmortem
in the custody of them who’s sworn duty was to protect.

Where is your justice, O Lord?
“Is your loyal love told in the grave,
or your faithfulness in the underworld?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”

Then the 8-year old little Bakherwal nomadic girl
who’s poverty perhaps helped her survive
a possible sex-selective abortion
held hostage ironically in a temple
raped repeatedly by eight men
one for each year of her life
strangled with her own scarf and then bludgeoned.

O Lord of the poor, friend of the weak
defender of the Orphan, protector of the widow
deliverer of the wanderer, lover of the child
didn’t she qualify as the one you should rescue?

“O LORD, the God of vengeance,
O God of vengeance, let your glorious justice shine forth!
Arise, O judge of the earth.
Give the proud what they deserve.
How long, O LORD?
How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?
How long will they speak with arrogance?
How long will these evil people boast?
They crush your people, LORD,
hurting those you claim as your own.
They kill widows and foreigners
and murder orphans.
“The LORD isn’t looking,” they say,
“and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care”.”

With a sunken heart, folded hands, and teary eyes
as one with no strength and little hope, I pray,
Give heed to the cries of your people–
abused, mocked and sent to their graves
from where their feeble voice rise unto You, crying
How long, O Lord? How long?

Does the Church need Cultural Exegetes?

An evangelical theologian is called to be both a faithful exegete of God’s Word for the world and a faithful exegete of the world in the light of God’s Word. In pursuit of the former, many have spent years in painstaking study of the biblical languages as well as the discipline of hermeneutics. By way of contrast, relatively few have engaged in serious cultural exegesis in pursuit of the latter.

In a piece titled, “Cultural Exegesis as the Calling of an Asian Theologian: Looking through Secularity as a Condition” published in the Journal of Asia Evangelical Theology (JAET Vol. 21 Nos. 1-2 (March-September 2017): 5-29), I urge Asian evangelical theologians to consider their calling as cultural exegetes. I begin by proposing a framework for the task of cultural exegesis and follow that with my own attempt at the task with a focus on secularization as a point of reference.

To ground this discussion, I explore a group of Indians I call “metro-secularists.” As Peter Berger argues,

There exists an international subculture composed of people with Western-type higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is indeed secularized. This subculture is the principal ‘carrier’ of progressive, enlightened beliefs and values. While its members are relatively thin on the ground, they are very influential, as they control the institutions that provide the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system. [See, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 10.]

As culture makers—artists, writers, and academics, similar to the liberal left of the West—the metro-secular punch above their weight in terms of cultural influence. While by no stretch of imagination has the secular reached its apotheosis in this Indian avatar, it may be argued that metro-secularists envision a goal similar to that of Western progressives. Where once local communities were the exotic “other” defined by strange beliefs, now, increasingly, they are part of a global culture whose beliefs are defined by Hollywood, media outlets, and culture-makers in the West.

I explore three specific challenges posed by the cultural influence of the metro-secular to the church: 1) Individual autonomy and the demise of transcendence, 2) Authenticity and the demise of virtue, and 3) Expressive individualism and the demise of mimesis.

Happy reading! 🙂

 

Tayloring Indian Secularity: What Has Changed Because of Secularism?

Does the principle of secularism, and particularly, the idea of a secular state, presuppose certain doctrines, whether in the form of theological beliefs or as worldviews that define cultural reasoning? Is something more than a mere adoption of a secular Constitution necessary for the ideals of the Constitution to become a reality? If secularism itself presupposes certain doctrines, then conflicts within a pluralistic context could be anticipated not only despite secularism but also because of it.

ChristianInquiryOnPolity

As early as the 1960s, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde raised the question whether, “the liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.” [Staat, Gesellschaft, Freiheit/ State, Society and Liberty, (New York: Berf: 1991), original 1976, 60]. If that were the case, then the state would depend on some comprehensive doctrine operating within the culture to provide the foundations for those assumptions rather than function self-referentially. Böckenförde argues,

As a liberal state it can only endure if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character (freiheitlichkeit) and fall back, in a secular manner, into the claim of totality it once led the way out of, back then in the confessional civil wars.

It follows that if the comprehensive doctrine within a culture is compatible with the secular doctrine, then it clearly goes a long way to ensure the relative success of the secular state.

The question of compatibility between secularism and the comprehensive doctrine in the society demands that we locate the ontology of the secular. I have explored the secular as the prodigal child of Christianity (prodigalized through the calculus of disenchantment, individual autonomy, and authenticity) which wanders into various cultures and finds itself a home (not necessarily a happy one) to become a foster child in the Indian sub-continent.

This creates a cross-pressure, a consequence of two opposing moods being felt simultaneously: a sense of belonging and a sense of alienation. For the very first time, one belongs to this independent nation-state and not subject to either a monarchy or a princely state nor is one governed by a foreign power, whether Moghul or British. By virtue of now being larger than any of its former socio-political avatars, India begins to command an incontestable allegiance from its citizenry. However, the cost of assuming this larger identity means having to subscribe to a doctrine that is alien to its culture. Hence the cross-pressure!

I have explored what such cross-pressure means for Hindu orthodoxy in a paper published in the book Christian Inquiry on Polity (IVP India, 2017). Unfortunately, the book’s availability on Amazon is delayed but here’s a print-copy.

PS: the title Tayloring Indian Secularity is simply because, I have, in a way, followed the question that Charles Taylor raises of how the condition of belief has changed in the Western context because of secularism to ask what has changed for Hindu orthodoxy in the Indian context because of secularism.

 

Towards Freedom of Conscience: Navigating between the Individual and the Community

A paper that I had earlier presented in Delhi (April 2016) is published as a chapter in this edited volume titled: The Bible in India: Religion and Ethics and is now available on Amazon.

Religion and Ethics

My paper argues that the freedom of conscience is inherent and fundamental to the human noetic structure and thus can be conceived as self-evident. Yet, human rights and freedom of conscience primarily take their shape from within specific background cultures, especially shaped by their vision of a good life.

This paper examines two such visions: Cultures that tend to focus on individual autonomy and those that focus on community. Individual autonomy is a Christian heresy and needs to be critiqued just as much as the communitarian calculus in our culture that tramples on the individual freedom. How may we seek a balance? I argue that the unity in diversity within the community of Trinity provides a prototype for a balance between the individual and the community.

Shifting the Narrative: an intro to JP

If you’ve never watched the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, this is a good intro. I must confess that I haven’t read any of his writings but I have listened to several of his lectures over the last couple of years. I should also warn you that he’s quite persuasive and therefore, this may not be the last video of his you’ll watch! 🙂

I highly recommend listening to him for an intelligent counter-narrative to the dominant ones out here. He shot to fame for opposing the amendment to Human Rights Act and Criminal Code in the introduction of the Bill C-16 (2016) passed by the Canadian Parliament.

I thought this would have been far better if the interviewer, Cathy Newman could paraphrase him more accurately! In this interview, she is often caught between an argument she can’t refute and a position she can’t abandon.

JP

 

The Ethic that Haunts the Secular

Comprehensive doctrines that a culture nurtures provide a framework for societies to live by even if they merely approximate it and individual behavior does not always correspond to the highest ethic of the society. That is, religious doctrines (or something similar) are not entirely lived by but are merely approximated in cultures.

To understand what haunts the Western secular society in its post-Christian avatar, it is important to locate the shifts in moral reasoning that Christianity introduces within cultures where it first began to take root. It has become a common belief to imagine that the advance of moral reasoning was achieved against the regressive religious morality. Often, the progress of secularization is mistakenly seen as the victory of secular morality over traditional religion— an attitude that continues to inform the current mood against religion in the West.

Although it cannot be fully developed here, the nature of cultural shifts in the conception of virtue accomplished by Christianity is pivotal, precisely because we would then locate what haunts the secular about Christianity. Christianity does not own all the virtues of secularity, nor do all virtues originate within the New Testament. However, clearly what the world had identified as virtues underwent a dramatic shift with the influence of Christianity.

The cardinal Greco-Roman virtues: temperance, prudence, courage, and justice began to shift to include the unlikely ones such as mercy and charity that became socially visible, in addition to (the more spiritually visible) faith, hope, and joy. As E A Judge observes of the ancient time, “Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders” [“The Quest for Mercy in Late Antiquity,” 107].

Humility, a rather unlikely candidate within the Greco-Roman virtues came to be highly valued within the Christian culture. Humility was, after all, the very nature of Christ, (Phil 2:1–11) who the faithful were called to imitate. Despite it being repeatedly abased by some great thinkers like Nietzsche or Freud [and some not so great thinkers like Ayn Rand? :-)], humility continues to be seen as a virtue today. In short, these “new virtues” of Christianity would permanently transform cultures and societies by altering not merely what was seen as virtues but the very conception of humanity. As Rodney Stark notes, “[P]erhaps above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death.” [The Rise of Christianity, 1996, 214].

The impracticality of Christian Ethics and its Consequence

Societies influenced by Christian ethics, as in the case of other societies, do not always live according to its highest virtues. However, throughout the history of the Church, Christian influence of cultures was not by way of determining everyone’s choices in favor of a higher ethic. Rather, its influence was in the manner it plagued Christians to practice an impossible ethic. That, in short, is the lure of Christianity! As David Bentley Hart observes, “It is the sheer ‘impracticality’ of Christianity . . . its extraordinary claims, its peculiar understandings of love and service, which down the centuries have not so much dominated Western civilization as haunted it, at times like a particularly engrossing dream, at others like an especially forlorn specter” [Atheist Delusions, 222].

Yet, it is precisely the ideals that haunt a society that shapes its culture. It is in holding certain virtues as an ideal that a culture approximates a value, however poorly. Thus, the secularization of Western cultures does not mean a sudden absence of Christian virtues from the society, rather, it is instanced in a gradual shift toward deliberate numbing of that which haunts them. Hart expresses such nostalgia when he writes, “the question with which I find myself left at the far side of my narrative is what must become of our culture once that benignant or terrible spirit has finally departed” [Atheist Delusions, 222]. Loss of Christian morality is thus about the disappearance of the lure of an ideal, which had always remained humanly impractical.

That the ethical standards of Christianity are so high that they are humanly impractical entails a certain course at least along two tracks: a theological track and a cultural track that move in quite the opposite directions. Theologically, it leads to a form of pietism that relocates the moral and epistemic capabilities from the human to the divine. Ethical life in this classical theological frame would be understood as a form of divine-enablement and not as a human accomplishment.

Theologically, Christian ethics tends to focus on God/Christ/Spirit as the ethical enabler of humans; the central idea being that humans are inherently incapable of meeting God’s moral demands. Particularly important is the Johannine focus on the “I–am” sayings of Jesus, which explicates Christian living as derived from Jesus rather than as inherent within a disciple and the understanding of Jesus as the Spirit-baptizer who enables a believer to live a spirit-filled life rather than a life led by the flesh. Similarly, pivotal are the Pauline explications of Torah/Spirit antithesis and flesh/spirit antithesis, both indicating that the ethical life of a believer is a consequence of the Spirit’s function.

Culturally, particularly as instanced within the “secular culture”, it tends to have quite the opposite effect in that the culture tends to deal with an impractical ethical requirement by redefining it to more attainable levels by lowering the moral bar to the realm of human possibilities. Søren Kierkegaard accuses the Danish culture of his time to have precisely done that. Using his typical irony, Kierkegaard writes that the people turn against the ideal and ask, “of what use is the biblical requirement, since no one, after all, fulfills it?” It has become “the impractical, a foolishness, a ridiculousness, so that they, mutinously or conceitedly, reverse the relation, seek the fault in the requirement and themselves become the claimants who demand that the requirement be changed.” [Judge For Yourself, 156–7].

This can be seen as the flip side of Protestant Reformation, which as Taylor argues was “a drive to make over the whole society to higher standards” [A Secular Age, 63] but in reality, it did quite the opposite. Prior to the Reformation, Western societies functioned by a different calculus. Of the late medieval period, James K A Smith (summarising Taylor) writes,

What had been intended as a division of labor between religious and lay vocations had taken on this hierarchical ordering and become a ‘two-tiered religion” (p.63), a ‘multi-speed system’ (p.66) with monks and clergy on a fast track, looking disdainfully at the domestic slowpokes mired in ‘the things of this world’ (even though their labor and profit sustained the monasteries and abbeys). Conversely, because spiritual pressure was sequestered to the religious vocation, the ‘weight of virtue’ was relaxed for the wider populace. Carnival was effectively generalized, and some felt that the laity was being let off the eternal hook [How (Not) to be Secular, 35–36].

Reform, intended to amplify the belief that “God is sanctifying us everywhere” [A Secular Age, 79] also entails the opposite: “If people aren’t meeting the bar, you can either focus on helping people reach higher or you can lower the bar. This is why Reform unleashes both Puritanism and the ‘60s” [How (Not) to be Secular, 37].

The recasting of traditional morality in the West may thus be understood not merely as resulting from the evacuation of God, but also that its “denial” of transcendence itself may be a psychological defense mechanism—a refusal to accept the truth within the cultural psyche, because of being haunted by Christian ethics. The swing of the Western cultural pendulum towards individual autonomy may be understood as a process of cultural prodigalization, entailing a shift in its moral vision (after all, the son becomes a prodigal by becoming autonomous!). Concurrent to the cultural shifts towards individual autonomy is the redefining of moral freedom from its classical sense as the power to choose against one’s natural inclination to defining it as a right to choose according to one’s inclinations.

In short, the picture of the secular as a prodigal is one where the secular inherits its share of (Christian) values and embarks on a journey of ideological alienation from Christian orthodoxy, shifting cultural variables within the society in the process. While this alienation instances a loss of transcendence, to a large extent, the virtues borrowed from Christianity remain (at least for the present), although purely within the realm of immanence and are often the very stick that the secular uses to beat traditional orthodoxy with.

It is interesting to note that people all over the world tend to hold “Christian civilizations” to a higher standard. This may be instanced in the debates about immigration of refugees that predominantly remain a battle within the West and even when articulated elsewhere, it strangely is about the West. Conspicuously absent from engagement on this matter are practically every non-Western nation, including majority of the Arab countries—a good number of which are richer than the West, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, China, and we may add India to this list as well, given how we are dodging any humanitarian responsibility toward the Rohingya refugee crisis.