The Statement the World Needs Most

The Statement the World Needs Most

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers.  For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade  in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.

The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.

This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.

But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.

From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge.  Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask AlexaShe’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.

But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.

The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them.  Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.

There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.

It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.

This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.

According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.

The Bible says differently.

The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26).  Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral.  Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).

Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23)  The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways.  But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.

That work can only be done by Jesus.

Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender,  – as tools to divide and oppress.

Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.

For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.

And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?

 

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On Stumbling Over Statements

On Stumbling Over Statements

This morning on The Briefing, Al Mohler proposed that people’s responses to the Nashville Statement would fall into one of at least four categories:

  1. Those certain of its rightness, who would be committed to outspokenly supporting it.
  2. Those reticent about its rightness, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
  3. Those uncertain about its rightness, without yet knowing why, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
  4. Those certain of its wrongness, who would be determined to repudiate it.

I’d like to humbly propose adding a 5th, one that might change the way we consider the other 4:

  1. Those concerned that its rightness in some aspects, is so overshadowed by its wrongness in others, that it’s impossible to support, in its current form.

This is the group in which I find myself.

It’s important to note the variety of points of disagreement people in this group have raised, as well as the their number:

It’s also important to note how many of the people in the group offering up some, or all, of these points of concern, agree with the statement’s basic assertions about sexuality and marriage,and most essentially, with the affirmation and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ with which the statement ends. (No one that I know of in this group is offering up anything about Article 14 other than “Amen and Maranatha”.)

In other word, this group is not comprised of the usual suspects who drag their soapboxes out anytime the letters LGBTQ start trending on Twitter (although, yes, they’ve shown up this time as well).

These are faithful brothers and sisters of the household of God, whose collective public work, and personal testimonies, make their concerns worthy of consideration.

The preamble of the Nashville Statement asserts that Western culture is in a season of “massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” On this point, almost everyone, from the statement’s ardent supporters, to its angriest critics, are potentially agreed.

A statement that began there, then proceeded from it, could do much clarifying good.

But in its current form, the Nashville Statement seems to be the equivalent of a brick path that’s been unevenly laid down. When so many committed, thoughtful Christians are stumbling over it, it would be judicious to examine the way the bricks were placed, not just assume the only problem is that people aren’t looking where they’re going.

On “Conversation” and Controversy

When is a conversation not a conversation?

Even though many of us use the word “conversation” to mean “anything people are thinking about in a collective way”, the traditional definition involves people talking audibly, and in real time with one another. In the Internet age, the majority of our communication platforms – email, texting, tweeting, blogging – free us from those constraints, making communication faster and easier. That’s the theory, at least. But as anyone who’s ever gotten into a Facebook feud about politics will tell you, or who’s been caught in an ugly dustup at work after hitting “send” on an email a tad too quickly, or, say, engaged in an online debate about complementarianism and the nature of the Trinity, the chasm between communication and genuine understanding enabled by the digital world can sometimes make meaningful communication harder, instead of simpler.

In her latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation”, Sherry Turkle explores the effects of the growing ubiquity of digital interaction on our most basic relationships at home, at work, and in our communities, and how developing (or re-developing) and modeling habits that protect and promote real conversation can be beneficial – personally, professionally and societally. It’s a thought-provoking book for those of us who are pondering the effects of the Internet on our relationships, or our souls. And it’s replete with imago dei ideas. Her central argument boils down to this: the more machines and screens mediate our discourse, the thinner and less effective that discourse becomes.

With all of the recent referencing of the Nicene Creed in the latest round of Trinitarian debate, we haven’t spared much thought for seemingly minor details such as the significance of somewhere around three hundred Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire traveling for weeks to meet in one place and collectively agree. This was way before the days of Google Flights and Uber, don’t forget.  But in the spirit of the Apostle Paul himself, when the truth was at stake, and error was encroaching, nothing but face to face interaction would suffice to sort things out. The result? Almost seventeen hundred years later, the words of the creed written by some of the earliest Church fathers are ones around which followers of Jesus pursue the most elemental basis of their unity, or their division.

Sherry Turkle’s arguments about the critical role real conversation plays in our humanity came to mind as I was reading this concise recap of the debate by Steven Wedgeworth. It’s an almost perfect summary of the substance of the debate.* Wedgeworth earns Taboo-grade bonus points for addressing the “tone” issue without using the word, and extra bonus points for noting that “some contributors have invited open and spirited debate, but others have taken offense at the very idea.” The occasionally problematic and personal nature of the controversy, and the outspoken willingness of some to address the issue through direct debate, are complementary (oh yes I did) case studies  in both the problem Sherry Turkle identifies about the limits of online engagement and the relational deficits it creates, and the solution to those deficits, namely, a return to the pursuit of genuine conversation to foster real and lasting understanding.

You’ll understand, then, why the genuine feeling of rising hope in my heart at reading Wedgeworth’s next phrase:

“We would like to try our hand at clarifying the real issues under dispute, and we plan to carry out this conversation in ….”

dissolved into forehead-thudding-on-desk-level discouragement to see it followed by this:

“…a series of (blog) posts  over the next few weeks.”

The rhetorical tools Wedgeworth generously offers to employ to build a bridge of peace between the feuding factions, are the same tools the two factions have been using to beat each other up with. (In love. And earnest contention for the faith. Ahem.)

Sherry Turkle would be…disappointed. I can only guess what the Apostle Paul, or our brethren of the Nicene Council might say, were they not all blessedly and most gloriously otherwise occupied at the moment. I don’t know what the final taxpayer cost per participant worked out to be after Constantine counted up the final bill. I can only imagine the discomfort the bishops and their traveling companions endured as they made their way on camels and ships and on foot to an ancient Bithynian town. But if they were able to choose from any of the methods we have today that enable learned brothers from different parts of the world to debate and deliberate over the critical issues of our collective faith in the spirit of “Reformed irenicism” Wedgeworth advocates for,

I find it hard to believe protracted blog posts would be the method they’d pick first.

Should the major participants in the online debate thus far actually concede this point, the next step would likely be to decide who would be willing to participate in a real conversation, and then what the form and format of the conversation would be. In the spirit of Wedgeworth’s blogging partner Mark Jones’ exhortation that we name names,  Mark himself has been a major participant for the non-ESS side, and has stated publicly that he’d be willing to engage an ESS proponent such as Owen Strachan in a debate. Whether those two were to represent the two positions alone, or to be accompanied by other leading voices, might be for them to decide.

I just saw that Mark tweeted today that he’s written a post for Desiring God on the Trinity on which he hopes we can all agree. I can certainly hope that way too. If those hopes are realized, and one blog post is sufficient to bring unity and clarity where so many others seem to have done the opposite, that would indeed be a mighty example of the wonders our God mysteriously moves to perform. I look forward to reading it. But whether our hopes are realized or not, I hope all of us take time to consider the relative merits of continuing to pour the new wine of 21st century debates in what are now relatively old wineskins of social media engines like blogposts and Twitter threads,

forgetting that our faith centers on the Word who became flesh for us. and that that might have some significance about how his shepherds, and his sheep, engage with one another, for our greatest good, and His highest glory.

*Wedgeworth states that “The relationship between the eternal Father and the eternal Son in the godhead has been appealed to as an archetype for the submission of the wife to her husband within marriage”. As various women participants have noted, the actual archetype proposed is for submission of women to men ontologically as an expression of femaleness, and thus spreading across all categories of interaction, not just the covenant categories of marriage and church. Rachel Green Miller reviews a new book by two leading ESS proponents that makes this connection very strongly and distinctly. Aside from the usual egalitarian suspects, no one who rejects ESS (that I know of) rejects the classic complementarian arguments regarding the covenant boundaries of marriage and church incorporating submission of wives to their own husbands, and church preaching and oversight being confined to qualified and called men.

Of summer jobs and ontological submission

If you ask my fifteen-year-old daughter about her career goals, she’ll instantly tell you they involve “being invisible.” This isn’t just because she’s an introvert. It’s because she has a passion for technical theater and stage managing, which is, as simply as I can describe it, the art and science of doing the parts of theater that orchestrate what happens on stage, without requiring you to ever be on it. It involves a lot of pushing buttons, and plugging and unplugging cables, and wearing black from head to toe. But the biggest part of the job involves her broadcasting a constant, quiet stream of instructions to a team of light, sound and stage technicians via a headset. And so now I have a problem with her summer job.

Traditional complementarian teaching would consider my daughter’s aspirations to a vocation that involves being a quiet helper of others as commendable, even womanly. What could be more feminine than not wanting to be up front and center, but preferring to work quietly in the background, literally shining the lights on other people on stage? But the complementarianism attached to the latest iteration of the Trinity debate, while affirming my daughter’s natural reserve, would take issue with the requirement that she be giving orders to big burly stagehands about when they should be raising and lowering backdrops. Unless the burly stagehands are women. (But then, they’d take issue with the burly women stagehands.)

This is why challenging distorted theology about the Trinity and its attachment to gender definitions matters.

This is where it matters

Right here, today, as my eldest daughter is getting ready to start her first paid summer job as a stage manager for a local children’s’ theater.

According to the arguments for the stream of complementarianism outlined by the authors of “The Grand Design” (and the increasingly vocal leaders of an aspirationally and aggressively influential organization dedicated to it),

my daughter’s exercise of her emerging abilities to flawlessly orchestrate the actions of a team of men (and women) to bring Frozen to life on a community theater stage, will distort her femininity, the masculinity of every man she instructs, and the gospel.

According to CBMW, my fifteen-year-old girl needs to get a different summer job.

I’ll gladly take suggestions in the comments. But remember that lifeguarding is out, too. (Too much potential for more distortion of her womanhood because of all that yelling at men to get out of the water if she spots a shark).

A different way forward?

The past several month’s simmering over some of the increasingly pointed rhetoric of a subset of Reformed leaders about the nature of complementarianism and its connections to the gospel, finally boiled over this week. Much of the early gentle stirring and heating was done by women like Wendy Alsup, Persis Lorenti, and Rachel Miller, although I’ve weighed in as well. Several weeks ago, Aimee Byrd, of the rhetorically spicy Mortification of Spin podcast, decided to kick things up a notch and take on some particularly troubling arguments coming out of the most recent CBMW conference, line by line. That led to some more stirring at the MOS site (including a turn by yours truly). Several of us made various attempts to politely invite a response from the CBMW folks, but were met with relative quiet.

Then, last Friday and Monday, Aimee brought out the big guns in form of one Dr. Liam Goligher, to get the bottom of things with a big infusion of creeds, catechisms, a sprinkling of hints about heresy and a passing reference to Islam. That did the trick. Yesterday, both Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem posted responses. Since then the discussion has been going at a fairly decent boil in three different languages – English, Latin and Greek, all in 140 character-sized morsels and longer form blog posts. I’m glad that the theological underpinnings of hypercomplementarian arguments about headship and submission and their tenuous ties to the Trinity are being examined. It’s important. But I’m a little worried that the practical reasons my fellow Blue Stockings began writing about this issue in the first place are getting lost in the midst of all the twenty-dollar words being thrown around. I’m concerned that this is turning into the kind of “theology-in-the-abstract”argument that gives theology, and tussling theologians, a bad name.

That’s why I’m wondering if this lady with only a bachelor’s degree in one language might weigh in with yet one more Latin phrase – one more familiar to the majority of Christians, which serves as the permanent tether between the transcendence of the Godhead, and the finitude of His creatures.

Namely, the imago dei.

The doctrine of imago dei is grounded in the first two chapters of Genesis, which describe with poetic beauty God’s crafting of man and woman, as distinct from the rest of creation. Imago dei is the place where ad extra and ad hominum meet.

For some time now, complementarianism as a term has been struggling under the weight of multiple awkward definitions, caught up in what men and women purportedly must do differently to define who they are essentially. But the first two chapters of Genesis say not one word about those distinctions. The focus of Genesis 1 and 2 is on God’s creation of the world and of humanity as a whole. It’s about men and women’s unified nature and unified work. The focus is on who God is, who we as human beings are, and what we as human beings are to do. The focus is on imago dei.

I’d like to propose that at least a partial solution to the arguments about the definition and implications of complementarianism and its connections to the Trinity, is to throw the term out altogether, or at least subordinate it (ha!) to one that has a closer correlation to the Trinity.

I’d like to offer up “imagodei-ism”, or being an “imagodei-an”,  as that term.

I’d like to propose that, instead of eisegeting gender frameworks from New Testament texts back into Genesis, we begin where God does, and go forward from there.

And to cut off all the usual objections before they begin, let me say clearly that I’m not arguing that we just quit talking about gender, or the institutions of marriage or church or whatnot.

But what I am arguing is that the reason for much of the last couple of years of increasing debate and doubling down on tertiary issues about who can be a police officer and whether Christianity has a masculine feel, is because we’ve missed some of the implications of the primary issue of what it means for all of us, every human being from conception to natural death, to be made in the image of the triune God.

This is not an original argument, by the way. It’s an argument made by a dear friend of mine in a book that I’ve reread every year since it was published. It got some traction, in some quarters. But judging by this week’s conversations, it didn’t get nearly enough.

On Monday, I’ll lay out the book’s arguments, and why I think they’re central to helping us move forward in a more unified way, at a time when unity in the midst of secular social and political upheaval is sorely needed.