Spurgeon’s Adventures in Victorian London: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 2)


William Howell Frith’s depiction of Paddington railway station in London.

Upon arriving in London, the 19 year old country preacher found that he had inherited a troubled church scene. Throughout Britain, but especially in the cities, the institutional Church had spent decades laboring tirelessly to render itself irrelevant on all counts. Hardly a soul in London would have identified as something other than Christian, but their religious devotion was built exclusively atop a foundation of national identity. By and large, they were Christian because they were British. To suggest that there was a distinction would have elicited puzzled looks from the average practitioner. There was, of course, an alternative to be found in the Evangelical movement. Nevertheless, by 1853 the nonconformist descendants of Bunyanite Puritans had substantially lost momentum and cultural influence apart from the scattered rural enclaves where Puritan theology still thrived. As their cultural influence faded, so did their tenacity to the principles that had formed them. Iain Murray writes:

“The Evangelical sections of the Church had not escaped from the prevailing tendencies of the times. The work of Whitefield and Wesley was admired, but it was little followed. The cutting edges of Evangelical truth had been gradually softened down. Those rugged Methodist doctrines that had shaken the land a century before had not been abandoned—and by a few they were still fervently preached—but the general feeling was that a more refined presentation of the Gospel was needed. With this kind of outlook abroad it was inevitable that the strong and clear-cut Reformed theology of 16th and 17th century England was quite out of favour.”

The problem was compounded by the aggressive theological drift that the institutional Church was undergoing during this time. John Henry Newman’s On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles Into the Christian Religion (1836) illustrates the corrosive effects that Enlightenment rationalism had wrought on English Christianity. In it, he reacts vociferously to what he dubs as the “forgetfulness of God’s power,” which, by his estimation, is written into the DNA of the newly developed ‘rational Christianity.’ He laments its inherent “want of faith, which [has] invented a spurious gospel,” all the while showing little hope that a return to orthodoxy is anywhere in sight.

Still more destructive was the ever-increasing influence of radical higher-criticism upon churches, mostly Anglican, throughout urban Britain. As the conclusions drawn by German Liberal scholars such as David Strauss and F.C. Baur gained hegemony in the classroom, young and educated ministers would introduce them to the laity from the pulpit. Emphasis on the truth claims of Christianity steadily became passé and prominence was instead bestowed on the ‘functionality’ of Christianity as an ethical buffer. The writings of Charles Christian Hennell are representative of a popular consensus among clergy on both sides of the high/low church line, he says:

“Let not [the] mind which is compelled to renounce its belief in miraculous revelations deem itself bound to throw aside, at the same time, all [Christianity]’s most cherished associations. Its generous emotions and high contemplations may still find occasion for exercise in the review of interesting incidents.”

Writing in 1838, Hennell was a Johnny-come-lately, and the theological drift had begun decades prior. In 1797, Evangelical William Wilberforce had written A Practical View of Christianity in an attempt to combat what he perceived as a growing doctrinal and moral decline. In retrospect, the patterns against which he had pushed were precursors to the predicament in which Spurgeon would find British Christianity upon arriving in London in December of 1853. “If we listen to their conversation, virtue is praised and vice is censured; piety is perhaps applauded and profaneness is condemned. So far all is well,” wrote Wilberforce. “[But] examine a little more closely, and he will find that, not to Christianity in particular, but at best to religion in general, perhaps to mere morality, their homage is intended to be paid.” This breed of nominal Christianity had so blossomed among the higher and upper middle-classes that it quickly became more or less the official religious orientation of the bourgeois.

Although not directly related to the aforementioned theological drift into ‘religious functionalism,’ the budding Victorian Self-Help culture was built atop a common foundation of post-Enlightenment individualism. In 1859, five years after Spurgeon took up the New Park Street pastorate, a man named Samuel Smiles published what was to become the seminal work in Self-Help philosophy, unsurprisingly titled Self-Help. The underlying message of the work is that every individual is responsible for his own lot in life. He develops this principle into a simple but consequential axiom: that the poor are poor ultimately due to a deficit in responsible decision-making skills on their part, and that overcoming their current dejection will be possible only when they take it upon themselves to learn the science of thrift and the art of constructive decision-making.

By all indications, Smiles had no intention of reinforcing the heavy-handed caste system of his day—after all, his work was aimed at enabling individuals from the bottom rung of the ladder to begin ascending it—but he did so nonetheless.

Life-changing though it was for many a Victorian plebian, Self-Help inadvertently pulled the wool over the eyes of the bulk of benevolent-minded Brits and prevented them from recognizing the inherently oppressive nature of the caste system in which Self-Help’s target audience was trapped. Nevertheless, Smiles was a man after Spurgeon’s own heart, and the latter was known to have referred to the former as “one of the ablest authors of our time.” It is important, then, to understand that the London of which Spurgeon was to become a permanent fixture was not only a place of profound spiritual chaos but also systemic oppression of the working class, which was ironically reinforced by the underlying principles upon which the groundwork of Victorian charity was laid.

It is hardly an overstatement to say that Spurgeon’s London was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. British society, best known for its primness and propriety, was implicated in an impressive assemblage of unambiguous human rights infringements. Even decades after jumping the slave ship, England was a hard place to be a human. D.N. Duke writes that

“Spurgeon’s contributions to Victorian social concern are often noted by his biographers and historians of Victorian Evangelical Christianity. In addition to numerous societies and missions sponsored by the tabernacle, he established a college to train low-income preachers, a book distribution society, an orphanage, and almshouses. He supported the temperance movement, Lord Shaftsbury’s schools for the poor, and the extension of the voting franchise and public education. He aided many fundraising efforts for noble causes and denounced slavery, war, and British imperialism.”

The manifold social ills present especially in highly populated urban districts made London fertile ground for the gospel to take root, if only church bodies could unite around a coherent vision of God’s redemptive purposes—a fact that did not escape the young pastor. What came to distinguish Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle from other socially conscious ministries of the time is the holism with which they confronted poverty and injustice. They sought not only to attend to individual cases of poverty (Spurgeon was, after all, largely on board with Samuel Smiles’ characterization of poverty as the product of personal vice), but also to speak prophetically into the contemporary milieu of systemic corruption, both overseas and domestic. In this way, they were a commendable synthesis of two generally competing ideological streams in Evangelical activist Christianity—hardly the behavior of an innocuous Victorian preacher.

Spurgeon Remembered: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 1)


Spurgeon preaching at the Surrey Music Hall circa 1858. From Spurgeon’s Sermons Fifth Series; Sheldon & Co. 1858. At Surrey Music Hall, Kennington.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) is mostly remembered as an innocuous Victorian preacher whose quotes show up on hallmark mugs and Baptist sermon illustrations. Although he is generally admired by modern Evangelicals, his reputation has prevented his legacy from benefiting the Evangelical Church to its fullest capacity. Over the next few weeks, I’ll examine the degree to which Spurgeon diverged from the prevailing attitudes of Victorian British Christianity, and seek to identify his “integrative motif.” Finally, I will explore several ways in which a proper appraisal of his theology and ministry would be beneficial to the modern Evangelical Church as we seek to imitate those aspects that would prove fruitful in contemporary gospel ministry.

Spurgeon Remembered
There is no dearth of information surrounding the life and character of the “prince of preachers,” but it is exceedingly difficult to separate fact from folklore when attempting to wade through the vast ocean thereof. Many of the inspiring anecdotes that surround his life come from dubious sources, or are difficult to source altogether. Even biographical information that came from his own pen, when scrutinized carefully, does not always hold up to the standards of modern historiography. The many accounts that he produced of his own conversion, for example, are not easily harmonized. It is not only the emphases that vary from one retelling to the next but also the details themselves. Additionally, those who have undertaken to verify the details of the story have found that the external evidence that is available conflicts with, rather than confirms, his version of the events of that fateful Sabbath morning.

It is unclear whether the inconsistencies between the accounts themselves and between the accounts and the external evidence are due to the inherent unreliability of human memory and/or the sheer creativity of a mind as imaginative as Spurgeon’s or if they are due to a conscious effort on his part to shape the events of his conversion to illustrate the gospel most clearly. In any case, this and other parts of his biography appear to be closer to creative Midrash than straightforward history. It is tempting, therefore, to draw a clear distinction between the “Spurgeon of Faith,” i.e. the near mythic figure who shows up in sermon illustrations, and the “Charles of History,” i.e. the unglamorous man who pastored a thriving congregation and tried to lead a household beset with tragedy. This is done, both consciously and unconsciously in many an academic study of the preacher, as scholars seek to humanize a man who has become the stuff of legends.

The reigning paradigm in academic writing at this point in time posits that good analysis of any historical figure requires us to deal exclusively with “the bald facts of history,” calling into question anything that appears to be the product of “imaginative interpretation” of the historical data on the part of the subject themselves or past biographers, particularly those who wrote in a premodern context. Under this paradigm, any sort of interpretive retelling of the subject’s life events is branded as propaganda and a new, “objective” picture of said historical figure is produced—often a more cynical picture. I want to establish that I will be eschewing this practice for the purpose of this paper. The paradigm described above is not merely flawed, but defunct, not least because it vastly misunderstands human nature and the nature of truth itself.

In her wonderful book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes that purposeful articulation of life experiences is the essence of autobiographical story-telling. As a form of self-disclosure, the objective is not, in fact, to relate the bald acts of history in an orderly and coherent fashion, but to process through narrative the goings-on of our lives and put to words the complex, emotionally nuanced movements of our daily struggles and joys so that the point of the story is clear. If, for example, one was to have a subtle but humorous encounter at a cafe, it would be necessary to embellish certain aspects of the story when relating it to friends. The humor of the encounter arose in the moment out of a multitude of factors both external (i.e. circumstances, timing, etc.) and internal (i.e. emotions, past experiences, etc.) that came together to produce amusement. Communicating the humor of the encounter to an audience who did not experience it may entail playing up certain details of the encounter and omitting others, rearranging in some part the order of events and rephrasing the words exchanged to render their significance more immediately obvious.

As can be seen in the way that the authors of the four canonical Gospels would rearrange events, alter minor details and shift the emphases of various pericopes shared between them, the aforementioned principle applies across all mediums of storytelling. In short, much of what contemporary biographers of Spurgeon have sometimes written off as ahistorical folklore about the man is probably just purposeful storytelling. Therefore, I have no designs to “strain out gnats” in my treatment of the historical Spurgeon. I will deal instead with the portrait that has been passed down to us, because that is the way that those who loved him, whose lives were transformed by his staggering influence, who needed him, and whom he needed, remembered him. This is not a treatment of the so-called “historical Spurgeon.” I will treat the pithy anecdotes about him as integral so long as they do not contradict what is known about him. Therefore, this is a treatment of “Spurgeon remembered,” not because I prefer to work with a “false” Spurgeon, but because the storified Spurgeon we encounter in the lively anecdotes about him is, by any meaningful measurement, the best window we have into Spurgeon as he actually was.

The Subversive Spurgeon, Remembered
The life and ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon is incomprehensible without a cursory understanding of the Victorian backdrop against which he lived and ministered. Author Iain Murray has noted that the unfortunate lack of nuance in Spurgeon studies can be traced to the tendency amongst previous scholars to neglect the specific points of divergence between Spurgeon’s ideology and the prevailing attitudes of the contemporary Victorian culture. The failure to situate their subject firmly within the prejudices of Victorian London can be regarded as the chief contributor to the popular but inaccurate portrait of Spurgeon as an innocuous Victorian preacher.

But as Evangelical churches increasingly self-marginalize and an alarming number of once doctrinally robust denominations succumb to theological drift, we need a subversive Spurgeon. Contemporary Evangelicals are inescapably the intellectual heirs of Spurgeon’s legacy, and he remains a hugely influential figure among our ranks. It is in our interest to reconstruct an image of him that is theologically robust and politically iconoclastic. Just as the reintroduction of William Wilberforce through Eric Metaxas’s Amazing Grace into the mainstream Evangelical consciousness has enabled him to be a transformative tool from beyond the grave toward refocusing Evangelical efforts around an elucidated communal identity, so also will a fresh look at the fiery preacher provide us with a refined vision for the future. Fortunately for us, the subversive Spurgeon that we need is, in fact, the only Spurgeon that ever existed.

Kendrick Lamar on Bonhoeffer on “Struggle Music” and Solidarity

The Ancient of Days (William Blake)

I heard a sermon Sunday morning. It was magic. They usually aren’t, which is a shame. I’m a thorough-going baptist and we’re suckers for good preaching. Not folksy sermons pregnant with what sounds like conventional wisdom. We want that face-to-the-gravel prophetism. If you want to nourish a living room full of baptists you’d best be ready with a word from the Lord, built up brick-by-brick from the pages, and-we-do-mean-page(s), of the Spirit-breathed book we’ve inherited as the great-great grandchildren of Chrysostom and co., and you’d bloody well better preach it like the kingdom’s comin’ if it hasn’t already. And such was the sermon. It had been a while.

The subject was prayer. And music. And God. And suffering. And so forth. They’re not unconnected. They can’t be.

My pastor likes dust bowl ballads. And hip hop. Dust bowl ballads are struggle music. Hip hip is struggle music. Prayer is struggle music. But it’s different.

The word of the Lord, from Luke the historian. Chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles.

Paul and Silas heal a slave girl, as they do. She was possessed. Her demon was lucrative to the men who owned her, so our missionary friends wrecked the economic opportunities she created for her oppressors. They have them arrested on a dubious appeal to local customs, pulling at the heartstrings of the xenophobic magistrates and public. The Bible is relatable.

So they’re arrested. And imprisoned. They sing hymns to each other. And singing is like prayer. Deep calls out to Deep. Deep breaks the prison chains from the wrists and ankles of the missionaries and the jailer wakes to see the cells open. He’s ready to slay himself. Struggle music might slay the oppressor out of whose treachery it is born.

Paul and Silas catch him in time to stop him. He can’t believe they stayed. They tell him how he can be saved. He’s not uninterested. They baptize his whole family. He’s not ready to slay himself anymore. Struggle music might slay the oppressor or invite him to join the musician in enduring wrongs. When struggle music is prayer it’s always pastoral. It invites the oppressor to join the oppressed, and the Oppressed.

“Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are struggle music because they have to be. It emanates from the dissonance between how things are and how they should be. We treasure the risen Christ in song and our minds have to wander somewhere south of heaven. Or we land ourselves somewhere south of safe and sound and our hearts have to treasure Christ because the Spirit in us treasures Christ like Christ treasures us and the struggle music we vomit forth preaches the gospel to people unencumbered by hope and homesick for something like heaven.

So Paul and Silas sang. And Silas sang the gospel to a Paul who probably didn’t feel it, and Paul sang the gospel to a Silas who probably barely felt it, and Silas sang the gospel to a prison full of people who probably didn’t know it, and the prison sang the gospel to a guard who couldn’t help but succumb to it. When prayer is struggle music it’s something more than struggle music.

We’re not real familiar with this, who are white and Christian in the post-Christian west. We’ve never felt the hot itch of fire at our feet while passers-by point and murmur about how fiery pits are where Jewish myths will land you, sat shackled in a dirty cell while sleeping guards dream about their families, or stared down lions in fanciful coliseums because we’re a national security threat. This is alien to us.

Of course there’s mental illness. And there’s music for it. And this is struggle music. And prayer is struggle music. There is a balm in Gilead for the woman who wakes up and wishes she hadn’t, who can’t find her bearings, who has no home among the land of the living. Some of us are foreigners on planet earth. We’d rather leave, really. But there’s no exit, save for death. Struggle music beats its chest and weeps itself worn, defiantly, to testify that struggle is better than death. It doesn’t feel true. But the Spirit in us believes it, and we’ll come around eventually.

Not all struggle music is prayer, but all prayer is struggle music if it’s prayer, thanks-giving included. This is important. We are the privileged, by virtue of living in a land where safety and subsistence abound. If we’re Caucasian, even more so. If we’re male, we’re practically impenetrable. The task of the average American preacher is that of proclaiming another kingdom to this kingdom’s privileged, which is a hard sell. There’s not much struggle to speak of in the Suburban, predominately-white churches that make up the largest part of our religious landscape. So what’s struggle music to us?

For one, an equalizing force. And I do mean force. Politics aside, the gospel demands solidarity with the victims of any ordering of society, even when its victims are not part of the believing community. That’s paraphrasing Bonhoeffer, from a speech that most of his audience walked out of. It was psalmic prayer, brought forth of desperation in somebody’s upper-room that wrought the strange communitarianism we see within the earliest Christian communities. (Acts 2, for reference.) I’m no Statist. Taxation is theft, and all that. But one of the non-negotiables of prayerful struggle music is that it beckons the privileged faithful to sacrifice their capital at the altar of solidarity. There’s nothing sacred about poverty itself. But we’re the workmanship of God, created afresh in Christ Jesus, and the voluntary redistribution of wealth is an avenue for worship that we don’t get to opt out of.

The extent to which the secular state should by taxation provide a safety net for those below the poverty line is up for debate, and it’s a debate I’ve joined on other forums. What isn’t up for debate is that Jesus, by a strange sort or intra-communal taxation, so to speak, provides for the destitute both in and outside of the believing community. He can do that. As previously mentioned, it’s voluntary. Ananias and Saphira weren’t struck dead for skipping the tithe. But it’s non-negotiable. The rich young ruler was excluded from Jesus’s entourage because he wouldn’t be convinced to sell his belongings to pool the capital for the poor to whom they ministered. It would be a good time to bring up Jesus’s prayer life.

It’s also a humanizing force. And I do mean force. There is a balm in Gilead for the man whose home has been devoured by debt and taxes. Out of a job, he can’t afford Christmas presents for his wife and too many kids. Or rent for January. And he’ll sing There Is A Balm In Gilead on Sunday morning – (Saturday if he’s an Adventist) – and know that everything is gonna some kind of okay, the details of which are yet to be seen. As he’s thinking on these things, it’ll occur to him that he was comforted by a “negro spiritual” that was eventually incorporated into the life of the whole church, at least in the States. And he’ll consider, perhaps sustainedly for the first time, the anxieties that gave birth to it. Of course there’s a balm in Gilead, he whispers. Why’d they need a song about it?

And his mind will wander to the high school English class where he read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or The Souls of Black Folk. He remembers how struck he was, or wasn’t, by the harrowing experience of the black man, sojourning in strange country like Israelites awaiting Exodus. And wherever he lands, he won’t give quite so much credence to the quieting rhetoric of those who would silence the complaints of the black community against what appears to be an inequality in the justice system. America’s no promised land. No yet. And he’ll know that, now, because prayerful struggle music is a cattle-call for the privileged to take up a cross of solidarity. It rehumanizes the other.

Like all struggle music, it gives us ears to hear what isn’t obvious. Namely, that we’re contributors to a system that offends God because it oppresses people who bear his image. Kendrick Lamar isn’t holy scripture, but there are echoes of Moses in Alright. Same with Regina Spektor in Your Honor, and echoes of Paul in Ode to Divorce. Genesis 3:16 says that man’s a curse to womankind in his natural state. In case I forget, Regina’s around to remind me. Numbers 12:1 says that racism permeates the very best of us, including authority figures. In case I forget, Kendrick will remind me.

Alright is the first half of a gospel proclamation, if I understand it correctly. Describing a racially charged confrontation with a police officer, Kendrick whispers:

I remembered you was conflicted
Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment

The officer abuses his power. No surprise there if you read the morning newspaper. He probably isn’t racist in any way that would register. But the uptick of tension as he approaches this unarmed black man is consequential. Our prejudices build their homes just beneath our consciousness, and their roots entangle everything. The officer misuses his influence, validated in doing so by the pre-conscious biases he brings to the confrontation. He’s the villain here, despite the badge. But it would be simplistic to stop there.

Kendrick won’t let us otherize police officers who use excessive force on suspects of color. Mainstream media lacks the attention span to give sustained focus to the personhood of either the victims or perpetrators of racially charged police violence, and so our dominating narratives are less than one-dimensional. Kendrick wants us to know that sometimes he did the same. Even as a victim of systemic racism he’s always within hailing distance of being the oppressor, given the right circumstances.

This is struggle music that invites the privileged to see themselves in the officer. Racism indwells everyone. We’re certainly not better than Aaron and Miriam from Numbers 12. But beneath it is the drive to dominate. Hearkening back to Genesis 3:16, the text says “Your desire will be for your husband, but he will dominate you.” That’s a brief encapsulation of the origins of patriarchalism, so to speak, but if the following chapters are taken into account, man and womankind are bent toward dominating the other wherever possible, in whatever form. One of those forms is racism, whether personal or systemic.

But, again, Kendrick draws attention to his own participation in the system that offends God. By his own admission, he is a Christian, so this song is low-hanging fruit, but the point stands. He testifies to the culpability of all of humanity, victim and victimizer alike, for the culture we create together. Everyone’s a predator in Kendrick’s vision, and John Calvin’s. Some predators live and die as victims.

And, to bring it back round to Bonhoeffer, the gospel demands solidarity with the victims of any ordering of society. Even if they’re predators, because they all are, like we are. Struggle music, prayerful or not, reminds us of this. It reminds us of the cosmological significance of systemic injustice. It reminds the privileged of the man who has to wonder whether the officer pulling him over will treat him fairly. And the woman who has to police her wardrobe, drinking habits, etc. for fear of becoming rape culture’s next casualty. And the Native American being heckled by the National Guard for protesting a pipeline being built through a Native graveyard. And the Middle Eastern family whose lives have been turned upside down because their governments were toppled by the imperialist West. It reminds us that the cross was demanded by the state of things. Systemic injustice isn’t the progressive stand in for aloof Evangelical doctrines of sin and so forth. They’re coterminous realities, often overlapping, reinforcing one another.

These are the sort of things that drive the pious and impious to prayer. Because struggle music is usually prayer. And it drives them both to action, carried on regardless of the jeers of the cynic, in the hope, childlike, you might say, that God will fight with them.

Aphorisms; The Importance Of A Good Philosophy

Adapted from Private Conversation:

A good philosophy is like a well-built house. There are many different ways it can be built, but there are certain basic needs (or even very particular needs) which it needs to meet in order to be a good house. In the same way that a house needs to keep people warm, some philosophies can leave people out in the cold if they don’t answer certain questions well. Modern science is a primary example of this because it was developed in a specific way that it didn’t need to be and now it has a habitual way of seeing the world which subtracts meaning from it (see Lewis’ The Empty Universe, or Barfield’s The Rediscovery of Meaning, or Charles Taylor on Buffered and Porous Selves). So, again, a world primarily informed by modern science is often lucky if it isn’t left significantly empty by that science. This is why Lewis wrote the essay called the Empty Universe. The way of seeing which science pushes is a big deal, and part of how it got there was often the result of certain decisions in philosophy or spirituality that have had a big impact along the way.

Then again a good philosophy is like a computer program – I learned this because around the time I was getting into Philosophy I also was taught some programming classes by my dad – these gave me much more knowledge of structural issues than of computer languages, which I hardly know now. But a computer program is made to call up certain code under certain conditions. If it goes to certain code and the code doesn’t actually remedy the situation satisfactorily, then the program defaults and an error occurs, sometimes crashing the system. The same thing happens in people’s lives. People run into real life issues when the (implicit or explicit) philosophy they have been taught requires certain “code” and calls it up and they discover that the code is lacking. This can create great despair and years of searching.

Now this doesn’t mean that philosophy is supposed to be taught completely authoritatively. In fact it only works by dialogue and dogma (in the traditional, European sense of doctrine and tradition), which is why it is so significant that Socrates and Jesus and the best Philosophers have written by showing little talks. If something is not convincing, we discuss why. If it is finally found lacking, it is acknowledged and that is that if nothing else is proposed. The history of philosophy is thus a long conversation. Someone who has studied it well can dwell in it like a house. Either it works or it does not. It works like a code in that it will run into errors sooner or later, bigger or smaller. The smaller they are, the more it will be like a dialogue. The bigger they are the more it will require both creativity and even revelation

I am saying all of this to illustrate how I believe philosophy has very real consequences and how it is important.

[It occurs to me that that some people will think this is meant to be exhaustive, or that this means I am purely constructivist about philosophy. I believe there is a “single truth” in life, but exactly how one gets there, or in what sense or degree anyone does get there, is a very complex matter. In short, Truth is not constructed; Philosophies are.]

Some notes on how we know things


These have been slightly adapted from a discussion I had on Facebook. Hopefully they will appear to be of merit. Most or all of this is not original to me.

1.  The problem with Kant (and others) saying that you should think for yourselves is that he is still telling you to think that. This is a modern doctrine; it has benefits, but it is not so bad to imitate the thought of someone else so long as you find the right thinker to imitate. This is difficult. There are good things to imitate in Kant and Descartes and modern (and Post-Modern) philosophy, but there is an unnatural and unnecessary rejection of earlier philosophies in them and a misunderstanding of how they work. For a Christian, this is undoubtedly the place where Revelation, that He is There and He is Not Silent (as the non-Academic but often quite edifying Francis Schaeffer puts it) comes in most significantly and profoundly, redemptively.

2.  Words are so interesting. My impression is that dogma still has a real existence as a word in Europe, and even indoctrination originally (if I remember) had, too.

[Meaning, I don’t think these words are essentially used negatively or even manipulatively at all points in their history. The Vatican has a Ministry of Propaganda – but they don’t mean what we mean by “Propaganda.” They are probably using two-millenia-old Latin terminology for the purpose of the ministry – to propagate.]

3.  I think, interestingly, that both conformity and “criticism” are largely imitative. An original thinker almost never happens unless they are original by knowing what they imitate so well that they improve on what they imitate (both C. S. Lewis and George Steiner testify to this in remarkable ways). In this way, I don’t think it is totally fair to say that “indoctrination” stifles creativity and criticism. It is like that Owen Barfield quote from The Rediscovery of Meaning – we tend to think we are open minded today, but in reality we are just more open minded about different things.

4.  I am beginning to think the issue of indoctrination is complex. Belief A can be held as a good belief to teach by both Man X and Man Y (and yet, what do we mean by “Good”? Two different concepts are commonly operative. See Lewis’ The Abolition of Man), but Man X wants to raise the student to a fuller humanity, whereas Man Y just wants to manipulate the situation to his advantage. In the absence of access to the truth about the belief and/or a good third perspective which can try to avoid the belief’s being used manipulatively, I think it is unfair to say what is exactly actually indoctrination and what isn’t. Perhaps a different word should he used.

5. Complicating everything  is my belief that authority can be a category of legitimate knowledge (think of the role of Revelation and of Mysteries specifically in the Christian faith). I think that there are generally three means of knowledge or rational knowledge – being Experience, Logic/Reason (a priori), and Authority. The question here is not, for me, whether authority can be a proper base for knowledge, but which authorities are and to what extent. Many of the points often made about manipulative “indoctrination,” as opposed to humanistic education, can, I think, be used edifyingly for humanistic education to the point that they are neither manipulative or indoctrination. Yet we have a habit, a tradition, in the modern West, to rejecting the face of authority. (We see how false this rejection is when we see the defacto authority which science, academia, politicians, media, and even regular entertaibment TV can have in the establishment of “public truths,” unquestioned, or questioned even sometimes at potential peril.) — This edification, then, is diametrically opposed to the manipulation which we are talking about. This is inherently related to the issue of idols and true worship in the Bible, historical Christianity and post-modern thought (Heidegger’s teachings are signfiicant here, through Westphal’s readings of them alone).

6.  Also, I think The Trio of Sources for Knowledge help upbuild each other. It is often by a mix of Authority and Experience that we learn about Reason/Logic. Geometry and Logic are literally learned practices which require discipline and a devotion of rigor. Anyone who tells you to think for yourself is giving you a tradition to follow and a thought that is not your own, and they give it to you on the basis of their authority and experience much more often than on the basis of reason alone, although that is in theory possible. Alternatively, experience seems to yield knowledge both on the basis of reason, “this worked in the past” and similar propositions, but it also is from a sort of tradition which is passed on to us; the very fact that most humans do not hold to modern science and its assumptions is proof that the assumptions of modern science are not really so self-evident as they are professed to be but that they are accepted often on authority of a tradition (with some experience and supporting reasons). Then again, authority is held up because experience teaches us that our elders, and some “authorities,” are often right; and reason can supply reasons as to why or how this is so. You cannot really rely on experience and reason without authority, for you learned of the value of experience and reason from authorities in your life. Experience testifies to a degree of veracity in both Reason and Authority. And the Reason can offer up not just “reasons,” but a substantial way in which the content of beliefs (beliefs proffered by Experience, Authority, and Reason) can be structured and held coherently. Yet even the structure of a system is affected by tradition and experience as well as by logic.

There is not any easy way to get to the bottom of this, although I think tradition and authority are far undervalued and are important in ghe same way that there must be some originary force which institutes reason and experience. And we can learn about this from authority.

7.  It is really very true that all of Western philosophy are footnotes to Plato. And yet Plato is built signfiicantly on Socrates. And Socrates had predecessors and had significant divine influences. And yet, even Nietzsche is hopelessly derivative, in many ways by being a negative imitator of what he rejects.

“We Have Done a Lot of Worthwhile Things”

(Some aphorisms, some assaying of 3 ways to enter the bleakness)

This post is dedicated to my wife – “Come live with me, and be my love”


0. “We have lived a long time.”
“We have lived a long time.”
“Yes,… and I plan to live some more.”
“Yes, and I might, too.”
“We did a lot of things.”
“We did a lot of things, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did. I circled the globe.”
“And I spent three years in the far east.”
“You served well.” (He had been in the military.)
“We have done a lot of worthwhile things.”

1. She asked me how old she was, to do the math. (89 years, I figured from 1927 to 2016 so far.)

2. They keep telling each other that they’re going to get through this, this is just a bump in the road, and that sort of thing – genuine encouragements. They’ve been doing this a lot.

3. He asked her if they still had a two bedroom apartment, she didn’t understand the question and he didn’t know how to clarify (along with being exhausted of trying to explain). I don’t know the answer, don’t know them, and nobody has come by today who would know if they still have a two bedroom apartment. (After writing this post I learn that they have “no next of kin.” Does anybody come to visit them? I don’t count, I am an intrusion.)

4. She is very hard-of-hearing and apologized sincerely to him about it, and he just said, “It comes with the territory.”

This is heart-breaking.

5. Once or twice I heard the gentleman made negative comments to the effect that someone is holding them here. The woman has asked who sent me here, who I work for, under whose orders I am – not asking in a challenging way, but in a probing way, not as though she expected anything, exactly – but the very nature of being accompanied suddenly by someone you don’t know in the least, and not knowing why they are there … it is horrifying to think about. The man at one point asked, I believe in exasperated exaggeration, if there was some sort of experiment going on.

6. I also overheard him observe to his wife that the people in the dinning room, other elderly ladies and gentlemen, looked depressed, and that he saw some of them crying. (Today, I am observing an elderly couple discover some of the realities which elderly people face in America. Some of their experiences they seem to be having for the first time, some they are used to, some, I wonder if they would be more used to if they had better memories – but I don’t know.)

7. He doesn’t understand why, for now, he has to wear certain medical apparatus (those words are perfect for the awkwardness of what they describe). They both have complained about the service – not, I think, because the service is bad – on the contrary, this must be one of the nicest senior living centers in Colorado. The real reason is that communication, understanding, empathy, are so difficult to achieve even by those really trying and really skilled at it. It is terrifyingly, depressingly unavoidable. And much of the medical skill required to take care of these people can’t easily be explained to them. In other words, increasingly, these men and women live in a world which they can’t understand, and which doesn’t understand them. They live in a world where they have things done to them which, even if they are just, seem to be injustices, and must feel to them to mean they are voiceless and sometimes even without basic rights.

8. And in fact, I know very little. Either about them or about their health or about any conspiracy about an experiment. I certainly believe that great good has come from modern medicine, and yet it seems quite undeniable to me that it is an industry, not to say many people don’t mean well by it. – I do suspect that a government which rules by absolute law could not do better than an industry in the sense that an industry can adapt, more or less, while changing unjust or overextensive laws once they have been made can be extremely difficult. But I am concerned. Above all, when I am asked why I am here, I can only say my company sent me (basically), as almost nothing of the science or their human situation has been explained to me.
9. If I was here as some part of a conspiracy, I wouldn’t know and couldn’t tell them. I don’t believe I am, but my point is that they really are becoming more and more passive agents in a world where things are done to them, just or not, and there is little to nothing that I can do, since we don’t know each other, to change that. My point is that only personal, long-lasting acquaintances, probably family, could really adequately respect them and give them the whole world, or anything like the world, which they are used to. But that would require an entirely different social structure, one that would allow even relatively skilled medical help to become commonplace (and probably commonplace in the home). And then there is the fact that most people struggle with respecting and loving those closest to them in the first place. You cannot stop this situation from being horrifying. You can ignore it, but it will creep up on you. I am not talking about “old people.” I am talking about people – because unless you “die young,” this is each and every one of us. The existential certainty of death is far too ignored. When did you last contemplate just how many years you might spend alone, or not alone but alienated, not understanding everyone around you? And even with those who “die young,” or who don’t make it to old age “whole:” –

A poor black woman hears her son has been shot, she has a stroke, goes to the hospital, is unable to see her son before he dies; her own mother won’t tell her that her son has died, sells her house, and she will spend the rest of her life half-paralysed in a wheelchair (this is a true story, I know this resilient but mistreated woman); my own uncle, Kerry Chadwick, entering his fifties, not really that old, not nearly old enough, died last year in a zipline accident. He was just beginning to live a dream of his, he had earned a Doctorate in Ministry (his dissertation was on Mentoring), and he had just completed a whole year (a whole year, so long, so small, – not enough time, it makes me want to cuss and I’m crying writing this) a whole year, only a year, but an important one, as a Camp Director at Inlow Baptist Camp and Conference Center in New Mexico, a camp of his childhood. He is survived by a wife, a son, a daughter. He was a loved and respected pastor for about a decade. He had experience as a chaplain, I believe both for the military and for the police force. He had worked as a bus mechanic and as a bus-tour guide in Alaska (many of these vocations he had fulfilled simultaneously). He was an incredible man, a phenomenal man. I had just been getting to know him when I worked for him almost two years ago, the summer before he died. No man is an island; my family, myself, are all lesser because of his death. The world is missing something, and I am crying again.

And this is so very, very depressing. To try to speak adequately about these things is to know you will fumble, but decide to fumble anyways. Here I turn from more aphoristic wonderings to my attempt to “assay” the difficulty. Being more directed, I expect it is easier to fail; I only hope I can “fail, fail again, and fail better,” as George Steiner says, that my weakness in not knowing what to say might be as a strength, that if my own words fall to the ground like seeds, they abideth not alone, as the saying goes.

Most of the time we all just want to ignore this sort of thing – certainly myself included. I often turn away from articles and blog posts, other peoples’ despair, saying, “I don’t even want to entertain that or let it in. If I were to take it seriously I would be wrecked.” I understand. Contemplating all of this makes me want to go home and just hold my beautiful wife. **(Note 1, scroll to bottom)

The fact is, though, even if science could progress (I heard someone say recently that progress isn’t finite), if death by old age could be done away with (“old age is the failure of stem cells”), that slow cold melting of your self, the fact is that we live in a precarious universe. If you put hope in ignorance, or in manipulative knowledge (called “science,” where “knowledge is power,” which more appropriately means that knowledge is primarily power and if it is not power then it is not really knowledge) – either way, you are only putting off the problem. Unless you deal with the existential crisis awaiting you in any and every situation, in the end, then it will become that much worse in the meantime. Putting off facing the problem extends its consequences further into the present.

But there is a way to deal with it – this crisis of old age, young death, or just death – sort of. There is a necessity that we go through the problem, through death, rather than around it, or than backing away from it. While my Uncle was no fool, and he did not take death lightly or get on that zipline without taking it seriously, – and I have talked with him about death (I only wish I could remember more than the gist of what he said) – he also new that “solving the problem” is something of a different nature than ignoring it or trying to power your way out of it. In fact, it is also different from even “solving” a “problem” – which is a mathematical and chemical phrasing – tied to the project and the hopes of modern science. (See Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, specifically her chapter titled, “Problem Picture.”) Death, and coming to terms with it, is a matter of character, of quality, of subjectivity, not in the sense of relativism but in an objectively human sense, a moral, relational, even religious and sacred sense. Coming to terms with death means coming to terms with the crux of the despair in your own self, which stops you in the here and now from becoming a person, the person whom you ought to be, your true self. (For the Christian, this is the self as God sees you.)

Christians often talk as though death had been overcome in such power that they can remain ignorant of it. But this is precisely not the death which Christ had, this is not carrying your cross daily, and this is not fear and trembling. In other words, Christians often say that because Christ died, we don’t have to, and this exhibits a loss of faith on their part. (Or a failure to truly appropriate faith – in which failure their “faith” is in-appropriate, a band-aid “solution” to a problem which must be met as a person with character and humilty, not by ignorance of the reality of death or by fake “power” which is the ignorance of arrogance – I mean scientific manipulation.)

But Christians do have the “answer” to death – and this is appropriate phrasing in as much as life is an ongoing dialogue, and in as much as the love and pursuit of wisdom is a philosophical midwifery, which means that it is a discussion which helps you bring yourself to maturity, to birth and then to rebirth. The answer is the Living Word (the Divine Other who Speaks into us, enters into dialogue with us), the presence of Justice, which is not a single, finite “solution” in a scientific sense or a sense which simply ignores the problem and the reality of death in spiritual procrastination. Instead, this presence is the quality and vitality of humanity when it is preserved, respected, creative, loving, familial and redeemed. So far as I can tell, Christianity generally is the only religion, the only “worldview,” which does not offer “band-aid” “solutions” which you apply yourself. It offers a spoken Word – spoken to you and me, a Word which speaks into the dark and makes it light. This light is the quality we try to preserve, the character and humility with which we are okay with neither ignorance of death and despair nor arrogance about them. Only this light can really carry you on in the face of death, into death, through it, past it. As George MacDonald says, “the Son of God suffered not that we might not suffer, but that our suffering might be like his.”

And indeed, once Christ had gone through the suffering of death, he came back to those who followed him and waited for him, he encouraged them, he gave them a direction to go in and he gave them a helper (the Holy Spirit) – all of these are what Christians regularly use to go through death and go on in a life full of bleak futures. (True evangelism is a life of spreading the Word, actively living with hope in the face of death, the threat of despair.) After Christ’s death, for those who lived in him, even those who were daily beaten and thrown in jail for not bowing to the ignorance and arrogance of the world – for them, death was a reality, but one with no sting. My own grandfather, or my own uncle, because they have been given the power to face and go through death (which power is the vitality and basic quality of their life-style; this is the calling of Christians) are able to face death and old age with confidence and hope, in spite of its bleakness, though not negating it. The “sting” of death is negated by entering the bleakness with the character of Christ.

This is why I have worked as a caregiver for the elderly in the first place, why I ever went to Camp Barnabas to serve and to love God and people with special needs, this is why I have embraced doubt and doubters, tried to be there when a void opened up inside of them (as it had inside of me, during my own existential crisis). This is why I want to be a professor, exploring the languages which we make in imitation of our maker, extensions of the Word. This is why I want to be a church planter (not in any boring sense); this is the application of the Gospel, the declaration of the salvation of my Lord.

(There is this idea, it is either the presence of the in-deconstructible, or it is deconstructive justice itself, that dialogue, “argument,” conversation, or community, call it what you like, “goes on forever,” as Aquinas said. I could talk on these themes forever, but here looks like a good stopping spot. Communion with the community of the Trinity goes on after my hand stops writing.)

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat should fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
John 12:24


**(Note 1: Two brief thoughts: 1. I mean here not to objectify my wife but to illustrate the very desire to reach out to the Other, I mean respectful desire, a desire for oneness, intimacy, over against exploitation. 2. It occurs to me here that there is a balance in the traditional vow, “to have and to hold;” marriage, when it is successful, is not a matter of mere “possession” without respect (mere “having”), but neither is it a matter of respect without commitment (mere “holding”). My wife posseses me not as one possesses a thing, but as one possesses oneself and commits to oneself; and the same goes for me “possessing” her. With God’s grace and help, we are hoping to become one. I am reminded of the couple here, of him getting up in the night, laboriously donning his robe and taking his walker down the hall to make sure that his wife is still in her room, that she will meet him for breakfast tomorrow – “there are a number of places she could be,” he tells me with concern. Their love in their old age is evidence of their efforts to be one in their life together. In at least one sense, their old age reveals a reality in which the “corn of wheat should fall” and thereby not “abideth alone.”

How To Domesticate a God


The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin.

“Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. 

He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.” (1 Kings 12:25-33)

The quickest way to domesticate a god is to ‘cast a graven image of their likeness.’

The rationale is simple, actually. When you take after a god, you come to value what that god values. So when Monarchic Israel/Judah took after Ba’al and Jeroboam’s graven calf-idols of Yahweh, their passion for the hungry and destitute fell by the wayside. Because Jeroboam’s version of Yahweh values what Jeroboam values, the Canaanite deity Ba’al and Jeroboam’s Yahweh don’t look so different. As a rule, we conjure up gods whose hearts beat in time with ours.

There is something to the popular suggestion that the gods of human history are just projections of the human psyche. To a point, Bultmann was on the mark in saying that theology is really anthropology. Unbeknownst to him, he’d made a biblically sound suggestion. The Old Testament paints a picture that suggests only two options truly exist: the ‘anthropological’ god of Jeroboam on the one hand – the golden calf whose sheer existence sacrilizes whatever nonsense the king dreams up – and the true God, the Facilitator of the Exodus on the other. We can have a projected god – Jeroboam’s God – who is for us because we are for us and he belongs to us, or we can have a God who is for God, and who, because He is for Himself, is ‘for us’ in a better way than the pliable, relentlessly affirming images we’d graven.

The ‘anthropological’ god of Jeroboam, however appealing, always proves himself a cheap trade-in, because although he is ‘for us’  as we are for us, his vote in our favor is a vote of betrayal, because our self-love is traitorous – not only to the true God who facilitated the Exodus, but also to us. Who lies to us more than we do? Who sabotages our endeavors more than we do? We are constantly acting against our best interests, choosing shallow affirmation over love, low-cost gratification over lasting hope. We are the antagonists in our own stories. Jeroboam’s god, who is for us as we are for us, is fickle because we are fickle. He is only as much of an ally to us as we are enemies to ourselves. He is only as trustworthy as we aren’t. Having a god that is for us is a living nightmare, because it has always proven to entail that he is like us.

In this light, taking on the values of a god who is already for us is a non-action. It is not a conversion, because if the god to whom we conform our values is already on our side we have nothing to surrender. Somewhere beneath our ‘collective consciousness,’ our fealty to the divine suzerain whose image we ourselves cast is an insidious form of circular self-devotion. Our service to Jeroboam’s Yahweh is really just service to our own community’s interests. Fealty to the graven image of the god of Israel proves at last to be something akin to “my country, right or wrong.” Soon enough, Jeroboam’s Yahweh has revealed himself to be a projected self-sanctioning of a return to Pharaohism.

He is impersonal. Unlike the self-serving God who facilitated Israel’s escape from Egypt and Pharaoh’s grip, he has no intrinsic personhood. He only has our personhood, and so he always votes in favor of our status quo. Like the gods of Egypt, he is bound to be the monarch’s lapdog, and therefore our worship of the impersonal Neo-Pharaohite god who advocates with faux-authority for our status quo is really just a sacrilization of our own self-destructive communal desires. Anything other than Yahwism is a form of illegitimate apotheosis [noun: elevation to divine status : deification (Merriam-Webster)]

Conversely, Yahwism [noun: the worship of Yahweh by the ancient Hebrews (Merriam-Webster)] is by nature a catalyst for the radical reorientation of communal values because the God at the heart of it is self-interested and is consequently beholden to nobody’s status quo. He is free to demand change from His subjects because His godhood is not contingent upon their circular self-devotion. Their continued existence is contingent upon His sustenance because He is real. He is the relational ground of being. The Yahweh who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, who forbade them from making a graven image of His likeness, is free to be God, because He is. And Jeroboam’s golden calf is not.


Time Isn’t The Key To Evolution, But Design May Be


“Destruction of Leviathan”. 1865 engraving by Gustave Doré

Historically, the Christian religion has understood the world to be something like the stage upon which the drama of cosmic history plays out. Although there has been a diversity of understanding within Christian tradition regarding the nature of the world, it could be generally summarized by saying that it consists in both physical, observable creatures and objects and spiritual, non-observable creatures and objects. Those things which are physical and observable can be seen either plainly (with the naked eye) or under the proper circumstances (i.e. bacterium, microbes; with the proper equipment). Those things which are spiritual and non-observable can only be seen by being revealed.

The many Christianites have never been ambiguous regarding this matter: God and the world are not one-and-the-same. Although the Biblical worldview posits that God actively engages the world, it is postulated with equal clarity that the Creator is not a creature. Such pantheistic theories of God’s “oneness with the universe” are not only theologically problematic; they are nonsensical. Theism alone, Christian or not, can make sense of the universe. How? The relative orderliness of the universe – now, I said relative orderliness – is unlikely to have been achieved in the approximately 15 billion years since the hypothesized “Big Bang,” and the complex and functional creatures that operate within said world likely would not have formed unguided in the span of the approximately 4 billion years since life began, if I understand correctly. Time isn’t the answer to evolution. Design may be.

The sheer existence of the world demands a catalyst. The Bible itself does not actually teach Creation ex Nihilo (creation out of nothing) with any clarity, but creation ex nihilo is philosophically inevitable, and that means that means that a catalyst is also philosophicaly inevitable. More specifically, the relative orderliness of everything demands that it was a conscious catalyst. Nevertheless, amidst the order is a cruel chaos that pervades every corner of existence. The “problem of evil” doesn’t actually go far enough in diagnosing the depth of the universe’s brokenness. It’s not just that “bad things happen to good people.” The whole machinery of the universe runs on suffering. The balance of the ecosystem is contingent upon the innate violence of the creatures therein. As it is now, the world can only run if things die, and often. This phenomenon is well illustrated in this David Attenborough quote:

“I think of a parasitic worm that is boring into the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, that’s going to make him blind. And are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy.”

David Attenborough’s reaction to the apparent cruelty of the world is more-or-less universal. The phenomenon grates against a moral sense that is so deeply ingrained in humanity that we cannot think past it. We cannot transcend our sense of morality; we can only think in terms of it. Even those who have sought to develop a philosophical system that negates the objectivity of moral truth claims in order to prevent oppressive coercion do so ought of a perceived moral obligation to prevent oppressive coercion. Hence, given the innate moral sense with which specifically human creatures are endowed, it would seem that our conscious catalyst has an agenda. He is doing something, and the world is the stage on which this something is taking place.

The idea that there exists a conscious catalyst who has an agenda for the world alleviates more-or-less all of the objections brought against macro-evolution by its detractors, both religious and irreligious. That does not mean that macro-evolution is true, and that fact that it does not mean that macro-evolution is true does not, itself, mean that macro-evolution is not true. It only means that theistic evolution, specifically within the context of the Christian faith, is a remarkably coherent system. The problems that plague non-theistic incarnations of macro-evolution do not plague theistic evolution. And the philosophical problems raised by theistic evolution are summarily met when theistic evolution is coupled with a specifically Christian worldview.

The relative orderliness of the world ought to be expected given the Christian doctrine of design. The cruel chaos that pervades the evolutionary process ought to be expected given the Christian doctrine of the Fall. Moreover, the meta-narrative of macro-evolution is rendered meaningful, because the conscious catalyst’s agenda means that the cruelty of existence is not the result of nature’s indifference but of creation’s rebellion, it is what Ancient Near-Eastern mythology referred to as Leviathon, which the catalyst Himself has entered into history as a Jewish carpenter to reconcile to Himself.

Paul of Tarsus vs. Jesus of Nazareth?


Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1481

It’s been in vogue for the last 300 years to say that Paul crafted his own Jesus and used Him as a springboard for His own essentially Platonic philosophy. The argument goes that Paul, good Hellenistic Jew that he was, was influenced by Gnostic Redeemer myths. Rudolf Bultmann, who is a contender for the most-influential-theologian-of-the-20th-century title, was 50 shades of convinced. Today, however, this idea is losing ground as we struggle to actually locate specific examples of the elusive gnostic redeemer myths. But even as the academic community leaves behind the Gnostic-influence theory, the assumption that Paul distorted the original message of Jesus in order to turn Him into a cult god refuses to die. Scholars who hold this position draw a divide between “the Jesus of History” and the “Christ of faith.” The former was the poor and itinerant preacher/carpenter who left everything to preach an apocalyptic message to the poor in Palestine. The latter is essentially a Pauline invention that grafts outside ideas onto the Jesus character and adds depth and clarity to what Paul claimed was the meaning of His life, death, and purported resurrection.

Findings by E. Earle Ellis have made that a profoundly unlikely scenario. Ellis identified pre-Pauline creedal material embedded within numerous Apostolic writings. Notably, nearly all of Paul’s epistles contain some form of quotation from what is presumably an early hymn, creed, or prophecy. These quotations contain material that paint Jesus in the kind of exalted light that scholars often attribute to the creative additions of Paul, but which inevitably emanate from a tradition that pre-dates Paul. To illustrate, I have stitched together several of these pre-Pauline creedal quotations found in the Pastoral Epistles* to reconstruct what one of the early creeds might have looked like:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.
He is the blessed and only sovereign,
The King of kings,
The Lord of lords,
The only one who has immortality,
Dwelling in unapproachable light;
No one has seen or can see Him,
To Him be honor and eternal might.
But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared,
He saved us —
Not by works of righteous that we had done,
But according to His mercy,
Through the washing of regeneration
And renewal by the Holy Spirit.
He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly
Through Jesus Christ our savior,
So that having been justified by His grace,
We may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.
For if we have died with Him,
We will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He will also deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful,
For He cannot deny Himself.
For there is one God,
And one mediator between God and humanity,
Christ Jesus, Himself human,
Who gave Himself — a ransom for all,
A testimony at the proper time.

What makes these findings significant is that they render much of the speculation about Paul’s role in the development of early Christian theology obsolete. Far from ‘inventing’ a whole slew of new ideas, he largely worked with the faith that he himself inherited from the earliest believers. It also demonstrates that the first century Christians were not so ‘primitive’ after all.

With this in mind, we’re in a good place to (finally) call the oft-purported chasm between Pauline-soteriological thought and Jesus’s ethical and eschatological teaching into question. Free from the modern orthodoxy’s insistence that Paul and Jesus taught competing worldviews, it quickly becomes apparent that, despite contrary claims by some, Paul and Jesus aren’t so different.

Not least among their similarities is that their teachings are often hyper-existentialized at the expense of preserving their common ethical commission. Bultmann and others helped to set this precedent, which ironically Evangelicalism now keeps alive. Whether it’s reducing repentance to feeling bad about sinning or reinterpreting the Sermon on the Mount as ‘high ideals’ to live up to, it has often been the case that western Evangelicals in the last few centuries have blunted the transformative force of the New Testament proclamation.

Baptist Ethicist Glen Stassen spent decades calling for a “thicker Jesus” amongst his Evangelical colleagues and brethren. It should come as no surprise, because the bulk of his research was oriented around the Sermon on the Mount. His work delves deeply into the radical social significance of Jesus’s life and teaching, and, in doing so, illustrates the heavy continuity between the life of Jesus and the ministry of Paul. Over against the disintegrating tendencies of both conservative and liberal scholars who hold the two at arms length, good hermeneutics (and faithful obedience to Jesus) demands that we recouple the two central voices of the New Testament. And that means that, in addition to Glen Stassen’s thicker Jesus, we need a thicker Paul.

And we’re in luck. Because as we are forced to lean into Paul more deeply and more sustainedly than before, we inevitably find that he only actually makes any sense in light of the life and teaching of Jesus. It is common and correct to read his work from the vantage point of Jesus’s death and resurrection, as Bultmann advocates. But it is incomplete to do only that. Every bit as much as Paul writes out of the overflow of the resurrection of Christ, he writes in the footsteps of His teaching and in imitation of His life. John Dominic Crossan once said, “If you read Jesus after reading Paul, you’ll read Jesus wrong. But if you read Paul after reading Jesus, you’ll read Paul differently.” I’m certain that Crossan would say that I read both Jesus and Paul wrong, but his point stands. The more deeply we entrench ourselves in the Gospel recollections of Jesus’s pre-Passion ministry, the more clearly we are able to hear Paul speaking. It is true that Paul can often be confusing. I say that in the company of his friend and occasional sparring partner, Peter (2 Pet. 3:16). But from the vantage point of the life and teaching and cross/resurrection of Jesus, Paul often speaks quite plainly.

For example, upon a close reading of his epistle to the Romans, it becomes clear that Paul had more in mind when writing the iconic epistle than simply imparting doctrinal knowledge. Evidently, his motivation was largely to repair the fragile and strained relations between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome and, by extension, throughout the Empire. He therefore crafts his entire theological argument around the movements of Israel’s history in such a way that God’s redemptive intentions toward the Gentiles is front and center – and in doing so, he illustrates that the unity between the two bodies is the inevitable outworking of God’s cosmic redemption. In the most immediate sense, he hoped to include the predominately Gentile Churches of Rome in the collection that he was taking up for the impoverished and persecuted churches in Jerusalem—most of whom were predominately Jewish. Paul was here putting a transforming initiative of Jesus into practice as a means of reconciliation in the Church. He seems to have been working off of Luke 14:12-14:

“He said also to the man who had invited him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.'”

By indebting the Jewish churches—who largely looked down on their Gentile brothers and sisters—Paul would kick open the door for the Holy Spirit who indwelt both parties to smash the pretensions of the Jewish believers toward their Gentile brothers benefactors. Through including the Gentile believers in an act of holy love toward their Jewish brothers and sisters, Paul would make space for the Holy Spirit to fill them with the sort of love it requires for two groups who have long been in contention to be brought together under a common Messiah and in a common Spirit. This is only one example, but once you catch one, you begin to see them everywhere.

Given both a thicker Jesus and a Thicker Paul, the exegetical obstacles that have frozen New Testament scholarship in awkward limbo for centuries begin to melt away. In retrospect, there isn’t much of a dichotomy to be found between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” But there are certainly irreconcilable differences between the Jesus-soaked Paul of history and the neo-Platonist Paul that emerged in the writings of the post-Schleiermacher scholars. What we’re facing is not struggle between theological conservatism and theological liberalism, but a failure on the part of both conservative and liberal New Testament scholars to adequately synthesize the non-competing teachings found within the epistles of Paul and the canonical  Jesus tradition of the four gospels. When approached honestly, it is apparent that Paul of Tarsus only really makes sense in light of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul did not hijack Jesus in order to build a theology; Paul was hijacked by Jesus in order to build a Church.




*Note: The Pastoral Epistles consist of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. I am aware that they are often assumed to be inauthentic by scholars both conservative and liberal for a number of reasons. However, the arguments for their inauthenticity are bad. Like, really bad. I’m willing to bet that within a decade or so, we’ll have outgrown the notion that somebody else forged the documents in Paul’s name. I’ll probably write about this in the near future.

Humans Are Seekers, Not Survivors


Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum

Human history is haunted by variegated expressions of religious faith, which is fascinating. To the best of our knowledge, humans are unique in the universe inasmuch as we are genuinely sentient. We have the capacity to make moral decisions both as individuals and as communities that are not fundamentally oriented around the survival of our species. Of course the macroevolutionary model is true, but it’s also the case that we operate on terms irreconcilable with a purely materialistic understanding of the evolutionary process. We are not chiefly survivors; we are chiefly seekers.

The Austrian-Jewish neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, devoted his post-WWII years to popularizing his theory that, rather than survival (as some Darwinists might have taught) or pleasure (as some Freudians certainly taught), meaning was the dominant pursuit of mankind. He argued that the search for meaning unconsciously motivates the decisions that we make, from Abraham’s desire for children to Jacob’s desire for blessing, to Paul’s desire for redemption.

Reductive though it may be, it is a helpful paradigm. Whatever we are, we are not merely the next step in the evolutionary meta-narrative (and it is a meta-narrative). We are creatures who seek out meaning and find it in places where it may or may not exist. Inevitably, then, we are creatures who seek God. Not only do we seek Him where He is (e.g. Noah, and Enoch), we also seek Him where He isn’t (“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Rom. 1:22-23).

As far as I know, chimpanzees, who share approximately 98% of our DNA, are neither religious nor superstitious. Something is abnormal about humanity, and it probably comes down to more than simply something maverick in that remaining 2%. Plenty of theories have been put forth to explain them, and they’re not boring. But they’re also not terribly convincing. The various secular attempts to account for mankind’s insatiable religious bent are no more persuasive than the hypothesis, put forward by all cultures everywhere until relatively recently, that humanity was created by a personal being (or beings) who intends to have a relationship of sorts with us.

I’m a big fan of Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi. I originally read it as a freshman in high school, about a year before becoming a Christian. And I totally didn’t get it. On this side of the faith line, it’s much more resonant, and it provides about as good an apologetic as can be made for the existence of the divine. Granted, there is plenty to be said for classical apologetics. Despite the impassioned “Nuh-uhs” of the New Atheists, the Cosmological argument really, really is weighty. As are most of the arguments that occupy the arsenal of the average apologist.

But as a human on planet earth, living a life that takes place chiefly outside of an office with a desk, Martel’s “story to make you believe in God” really is all that. In the book, the narrator tells two stories, both of which bring about the same conclusion by all empirical evidences. One features his narrator surviving 277 days at sea on a life raft with a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, stumbling onto a “a floating island network of carnivorous algae,” and crossing paths with a cannibalistic survivor from another shipwreck. The second story has none of the more fantastical elements. He then poses the question: with both stories satisfying the empirical data, which was the better story?

It is conceivable that humanity’s seeker bent is somehow conducive to our flourishing as a species. But it’s equally conceivable, and bloody well more intuitive, that something more is at play.