Saturday, May 17, 2008

Toward a Meaning of Depth

I often hear the term "deep" thrown around to describe various things, i.e., "deep conversation" or "deep discussions" or "deep friendships." Typically, the term is used in a very positive way, it is a characteristic that we desire things to have. I agree that I want depth in a lot of things, but I have realized that there is a lack of clarity, to me at least, as to what a we mean when we say "deep."

Very often, I think that we usually take "deep" to mean either "serious" or "abstract." When we have a very serious conversation we describe it as deep. When someone throws out an abstract idea in a discussion we call them a deep thinker. But I don't think that is necessarily the best way to look at this. To illustrate, lets first explore what we mean when we describe something as "shallow" as opposed to "deep."

Shallow is usually synonymous with "trite." A trite conversation is one that is has no real importance or significance. Talking about your hair color has no real effect on anyone else beyond some superficial opinion judgment. So that seems a very insignificant thing. I think we can justifiably declare "deep" to be the opposite of "shallow." So it would seem that depth implies that what is being discussed actually has some significance. It has an important impact on someone, it is meaningful. In that sense, depth is not merely serious or abstract. In fact, something serious or abstract may actually be shallow if it is meaningless or insignificant.

So how does this apply to various things? First, we need to realize that depth is probably a relative thing, and by relative, I mean based on the situation. So for instance, a conversation would be deep if the things said had a significant or meaningful impact on their audience. If someone is dealing with a situation, depth would involve giving them good advice as opposed to changing the subject to something that has little impact on their situation. So a deep person would be one who is able to discern what is important in a situation or conversation and able to express things meaningfully and positively affect others. A deep relationship would be one where this occurs mutually, each individual positively affecting the other, whether that be by encouragement, advice, constructive criticism, or some other means.

This being said, depth probably doesn't look the same in every case. I think you can be very light-hearted and funny and have a lot of depth if what you're saying has some sort of meaningful impact. Likewise, I don't think that a "deep conversation" has to be serious in tone or academic in nature provided the things that come out have some significance. The measure of that significance may even be different to different individuals in different circumstances. Basically, depth to me seems to be a combination of discernment (or maybe sensitivity to the situation at hand) and the confidence to apply that discernment to the given situation.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Trying to Process and Respond

From another blog, in response to events at Southeastern Bible College:

The news we got this week is still pretty hard to believe. How could someone (or two individuals) we held so dearly and looked up to so much fall so far? How do we make sense of someone trading paradise for a bite of fruit? Is it any easier when that person is someone we revere, someone we considered a role model, the epitome of what it meant to be a Godly individual?

How do we respond in this kind of a situation? One initial response is shock. Another is anger. Yet both of these seem somewhat misguided. None of us can say this could never happen to me. We all let ourselves be carried away by sin at times. We all find ourselves on the edge of disaster, faced with choices that are hard to make. Sometimes we all fail. So what right do we have to be angry? While we can rightly say what was done is wrong, we can make that judgment, are we really in a position to look at them condemningly? Can any of us throw the first stone? And how can we be shocked that this has happened, we see the roots of the same things in ourselves. The fact that two individuals whom we all thought so highly of have been caught in this should be proof that none of us are immune.

So how should we respond? How do we look at this? At least for me, what seems the most appropriate and overwhelming reaction is sorrow. These two have destroyed themselves to a great extent. They have lost a lot of what they stood for, what defined them. Dreams and goals are now completely abandoned. Can the friendships they had ever continue on the same level? Can they in any way justify what they are doing with what they believe and have taught so many others? Looking at what these two have now become, what they have left of themselves and their lives, all I can really feel is sorrowful for them.

I think the impact this has may be beneficial to many. There is a certain healthy suspicion that comes when some disaster like this occurs. Not necessarily of others- how can I judge what I do not know?- but of ourselves. We all know that we have this same potential to fall. We should see in this a reminder of that. A reminder that we should be ever-mindful of our own intentions and actions so that we do not put ourselves in the same situations, falling into the same mistakes. This is not to say that we can with absolute assuredness avoid this kind of thing ourselves. But I know for me that it is going to be hard to get this out of mind. Every time I pick up certain books I will think of it. Every time I encounter certain people I will think of these others whom we have for all practical purposes lost. The constant reminder of the nuclear shell that they set off with their actions will I think act as a deterrent in large part to me ever even starting down the same paths. I cannot say that I can maintain perfection, but I can say that this has a huge impact on me moving forward. To at least some extent I hope it does the same for many others.

I hope and pray that these two are able, in some way, to remove themselves from the mess into which they have landed. They certainly cannot turn back the clocks. They cannot fix what they have done, the consequences will follow them for years to come still, no matter what they do now. Looking at this raises so many questions about a host of issues moral, theological, and personal. I don't want to even begin to try and unravel those here. What I want more than anything is for them to sort through this situation themselves, to find a solution, to seek reconciliation and forgiveness with God and with those they have affected. I want for us to be able to move beyond this, but to still remember their mistake so we can avoid the same.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Exploring the Limits of Our Knowledge

Responding to a question by a friend that has caused me to think quite a bit on a very difficult topic.

The question was basically "can humans grasp ultimate truth/reality?" From a Christian perspective, this ultimate truth or reality is said to be based or found in God. So the question is can humans comprehend God? If so, can we express this in words?

At one end of the spectrum we find the position that we have no ability to comprehend God in our human reasoning. Common lines of reasoning in Western Christianity are that God is above human reasoning or excluded from it (because he designed it, presumably). The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a similar view and ultimately resorts to using more mystical methods to understand God. These Eastern thinkers might be perfectly comfortable in making contradictory statements about God because our human reasoning cannot really comprehend Him. They also are much more comfortable with making statements like "God is not…" rather than attempting to positively describe God. More moderate views hold that God can be understood to a certain extent, but our knowledge is limited. The emergent church movement has a lot of this type of thinking in it.

The evangelical view (which is by far a minority position in Christianity) is that God can be understood (though even here we find limits). He has revealed himself in His word and so as far as His word describes Him we are able to understand Him (or at least make descriptive statements that make sense and do not contradict each other about Him). To do this we often must resort to using philosophy to refine our understandings. This is somewhat controversial, but I would argue that the "ultra-evangelical" idea that we can base our theology solely on the Bible is impractical. To interpret and understand the Bible, we must use some form of hermeneutics, itself a philosophical discipline.

Ultimately, I find problems with the idea that we cannot comprehend God. It seems actually a self-defeating position- to say we cannot have any understanding of God is to make a statement that shows understanding of at least some aspect of God's character (call it His mysteriousness). Further, to say that God is above or outside of human reasoning raises some serious issues. If God is not "subject" to the law of non-contradiction, for instance, then he could potentially exist and not exist at the same time!! That seems a serious flaw in the reasoning (unless you're an absolute relativist, which is also a self-defeating philosophical position). So it seems we have to have some ability to understand or comprehend God.

At the same time, I can readily admit there must be limits to that knowledge. We finite beings obviously cannot fully comprehend an infinite being. But this does not mean we cannot comprehend in part. The traditional evangelical view holds that we can understand God in a large way, and hence I have several very thick books on my shelf on "Systematic Theology." While I was basically raised on this understanding of God, I am highly suspicious of systematic theology. I think all the proof-texting that goes on by theologians tends to take passages of the Bible way out of their intended context to imply things they may not necessarily imply. To clarify, I do believe the Bible very clearly teaches (though perhaps not in a proof-text friendly form) some essential doctrines- the separation of man from God by sin, the deity and humanity of Christ, the death burial and resurrection, salvation by grace alone, the trinity, the return of Christ. Those seem pretty big and pretty clear. But a lot of more minor doctrines seem much less clear and much less spelled out. In those grey areas, I worry that proof-texting makes things too black and white, too cut and dry, and in some cases misses the point all-together.

So I guess that makes me a bit of a moderate evangelical. I think we can understand God to the extent that He has made Himself known in scripture, and perhaps more so based on philosophy. But I think perhaps we have overdone it in our quest for a simple, systematized understanding of God. There may be more mystery than some evangelicals want to admit.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Reflections During Missions Conference

We've just finished a missions conference here at Southeastern with Dr. Billy Kim as our keynote speaker. He is a native of Korea who came to the United States to go to school after the Korean war and then went back to Korea as a pastor of what has now become one of the largest and most influential churches in Asia and the president of the Far-East Broadcasting Comany. He has really challenged and I think on many levels convicted us regarding our often apathetic attitude toward missions and making disciples of other nations and peoples.

He has talked several times about the explosive growth of the church in South Korea. His church, for instance, began with barely a dozen members meeting in a shack. Now it has 20,000 members. Overall, there were less than a million believers in South Korea 40 years ago. Today, there are over 13 million. According to Dr. Kim, the largest Presbyterian, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches in the world are in South Korea along with "probably 20 of the world's largest churches" (not sure out of how many). As I was hearing these stories, a statistic I had heard came to mind. About 100 years ago, 80% of Christians were found in the West (West Europe, North America). Today, 80% of Christians are outside of the west. In Europe, which used to be the major stronghold of the Church, Christianity is all but dead. I wonder if the United States is not headed in that same direction. There are at least some indications that it may be. In twenty years, will America likewise be labeled "spiritually dead and dark" as France is right now and will countries like Korea be sending missionaries to us?

It is somewhat disheartening that Christianity seems to be faltering in the West, but I think in large part that has been by our own making. Our wealth and prosperity has, in many ways I think, made us apathetic towards God. By contrast, when I meet Christians from less wealthy parts of the world, I am always amazed at their zeal and passion. One thing, however, has occurred to me that makes me quite nervous. Many of the Christians in the developing parts of the world are remarkably uneducated. This definitely extends to theological education. Dr. Kim said at one point this week that Korea admittedly does not have the theological knowledge that many Christians in the west have. I've spoken with missionaries this week who discussed regions in the world where new Christians are easily led astray by cult movements like the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses (some even to the point of making cult leaders the pastors of their newly founded churches). There is a real danger here.

Christianity may be "dying" in the west, but there is still a great wealth of knowledge in the west. The best seminaries and theological schools in the world are primarily in the United States, Britain, and Germany. If Christianity is shifting to other parts of the world, it seems to me it is essential that Christian theological education shift into those areas as well. Yet this seems a fairly neglected need.

I have definitely felt God's calling towards full-time ministry. I desire to work to some extent in a pastoral role, but I also know that my main interests and skills are more academic and related to teaching. I have also felt, to some extent, a desire to work in oversees missions for at least a little while. I am definitely beginning to entertain the notion of going to the missions field to train pastors and teach theology to people in parts of the world where that knowledge is much more scarce.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Inspired By or Compatible With?

I've heard it said that the concept of separation of powers in America's political system ultimately originates from the doctrine of sin. The argument says that the founding fathers recognized man's sinfulness and so they designed a system that took that into account, whereas European systems seemed anti-Christian in that respect because they often lack a separation of powers.

I think I have a different take on this. Given that most of the founding fathers (and certainly all of the most influential ones in drafting our constitution) were not Christians by most accounts, it seems doubtful they would base such an important aspect of our government on a Christian doctrine. Its also doubtful that such a system was even intended: the constitution gives some checks between legislative and executive branches, but in my studies of history, it seems the legislature was always intended to dominate and the judiciary was never intended to play a part in the balance of power. So the current understanding we have has been the result of some political evolution in our government. The best explanation seems to be that the original system was devised as a reaction to the "tyranny" of British politics from under which the colonies had just escaped and an attempt to create a more populist government that actually functioned. Later political forces created the system we now understand. I see little reason or evidence to indicate that this was based on the Christian doctrine of sin and depravity.

That being said, it is certainly compatible with that doctrine. The system of checks and balances certainly fits to some extent with a Christian understanding of the human condition. But it seems an illogical leap to suggest that means this political institution was inspired by Christian doctrine, especially when historical evidence seems to suggest otherwise. I think there needs to be caution expressed before reading democracy or any western institution into the scriptures or out of the scriptures. They may sometimes be compatible with each other, but this does not mean that they are inspired by one another. Nor does it mean that scriptures teach democracy or support democracy. Remember, they were not written under democracy, and for the most part none of their writers had any democratic experience or knowledge. But their truths are timeless, so we should not be surprised when we find ways to make them compatible with or apply them to our culture or any culture. This does not mean this culture is what scripture teaches. Culture can change, and the application of the Bible will adapt.

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