Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Neurosis of Guilt among Pious Christians

Speaking of works-based righteousness: I think our congregation still struggles with this deeply. It’s part of our set Asian-American, bi-cultural neuroses. It’s packaged in with the things we’ve been taught at home, by our parents, by the performance-driven culture around us. My parents are the best parents in the world; they give me more than I ever deserved and support me more, so much more than the parents of a lot of my friends. They never pressure me except not to waste my potential. Yet I still feel it because I grew up saturated in it. That constant guilt during my waking hours, like the feeling of coldness during sleeping hours (if you’ve ever tried to sleep without adequate blankets, you know what I mean) is always there, pushing me onwards to perform. I’ve talked about the difference between chasing after something and going after something because you are being chased from behind. Works-based guilt is a cause for the latter.
The thinking I am speaking of exists by the presupposition that we must fend for ourselves; that God will not come to save us, that God is not in the business of saving us, but only judging us. We think if we’re going to make it through the judgment day grind, we’re going to have to take our piety upon ourselves and work towards pleasing God. We acknowledge salvation by grace with our lips, but our hearts are far from it. We acknowledge that we’ve been “saved by Jesus Christ” and that we’re “born-again”, but after that conversion, we live as if we’re still on the wrong end of God’s wrath. So we work all the harder. When we get lazy and stop reading the Bible regularly, we beat ourselves up over it and subject ourselves to self-inflicted emotional trauma. If we forget to do devotions in the morning and our day goes badly, we think God is “disciplining us” for our grievous error. If we don’t get something we want, even if it’s a good thing, we think it’s because we didn’t pray hard enough and never think that it might possibly be that in God’s sovereign plan, the timing wasn’t right.
Not only is this a profound misunderstanding of faith, it is a deep affront to God’s saving power and it is often disguised as piety. When we lament, “why can’t I just be a better Christian?” and put ourselves down for our piss-poor effort, we are in essence spitting upon the work of the cross, nullifying the precious jewel and regarding it useless in our predicament. Not only that, just consider what happens when we do succeed. If I read the Bible every night and pray for an hour before I go to bed, who gets the credit then?
I hear it more often than not, “I struggle so much with loving God. I can’t seem to do my devotions consistently. I fail all the time.” While this sort of self-reprieve is no worse than completely giving ourselves to sin without abandon, it is no better either. What’s the difference between sinning and being okay with it, and sinning and complaining about it? There is no difference; neither one grasps the power of the gospel, the gospel of the one who knew no sin and yet became sin for us.
A warning to the pious. My friends, beware of guilt. It is dangerous because it makes us think that having it is the only way we can live with our sin. We think if we’re not feeling guilty about our failings then we are not truly right before God. But the truth is the exact opposite! Our guilt is very real and we can only be right before God if it is removed, not if it is lived with. If all we had to do was struggle with our constant guilt, then Christ died for NOTHING!
What’s the difference between being chased and chasing something? The former is done out of fear and the latter is done because of love. Don’t chase after piety because death is chasing you from behind. Chase after loving God because grace has given you motivation.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

“I’m a war of head verses heart, it’s always this way
My head is weak, my heart always speaks before I know what it will say”
- Crooked Teeth, Death Cab for Cutie

Talking about the distinction between soul and body is dangerous. It’s facetious. There is NO clear line between soul and body, mind and matter, reason and emotion. They are heuristic categories. We human beings love to multiply distinctions. We do it because it makes the world simpler, easier to understand, and more manageable. We love to categorize, to dissect, and to label. And it’s not wrong. We can’t have it any other way. But to do so is to risk losing sight of the fact that we are WHOLE. There is a human being. There is no digestive system, circulatory system. There isn’t a sex drive and an appetite. There is a human being. You were wrong, Clive Staples Lewis, when you said “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body”. What we are is a human being. What you are doing is creating all sort of religious, philosophical, and ethical problems by multiplying distinctions where they ought not to be.

Why do we do this? First of all, because it’s easy. It’s easy to decide on a macro level where the eyeball ends and the skull begins, where the small intestine ends and the large intestine begins, where the tendon ends and the bone begins. But on a molecular level, no such distinction exists. On a macro level, we know when we are being driven by emotion and when we are being driven by reason. But if we subject our inner thoughts to deep introspection, we’ll realize that trying to distinguish the two is foolish; it is a result of an inadequate understanding of our cognition. It’s a result of oversimplifying our brain processes. The Vulcan race from the Star Trek franchise is an interesting philosophical thought experiment, but it would not be possible, nor would the existence of such a race be logically tenable. You might as well try to invent a race of beings that could only conceptualize numbers but not words.

If we were really honest with ourselves, we’d realize that all our emotions are a logical result of complex inner thought and logic. All of them are explainable, they all have an origin somewhere, no matter how confusing they seem to us. If we were really honest with ourselves, we’d realize that no one reason’s logically in an objective vacuum. Reason isn’t an impartial tool that we use to arrive upon an objective answer. If it were so, then why would we disagree? On anything? The two are inextricably connected. We can’t separate it.

Then WHY? Why do our feelings and thoughts always seem to be so opposed? Why do we speak in these terms? Why do we say things like, “Listen to your heart” as if our brains were out to steer us wrong? Why did Obi-freakin’-Wan tell Luke to “trust your feelings” instead of that expensive, high-tech targeting system in his X-wing fighter? Why does it seem like our hearts desires and our brains “oughts and shouldn’ts” are always in conflict?

I don’t know. I have a few insufficient answers. It could be the result of sin fracturing a being that God regarded as “good” and “whole” and “complete” into incomplete parts that are always in conflict with one another. It could be that after three thousand years of Western, Greek-influenced philosophy, we as a culture are ingrained in our understanding of what makes an individual that it’s impossible for us to imagine it any other way.

I think it’s our burden to unseat this misconception. It’s a great distinction for non-meaningful circumstances, such as when I say, “I hate working out, but I know it’s good for me, so my reason overrides my emotions”. But when it comes to the important issues, it’s dangerous. Because what does God save? Our souls? So our bodies are meaningless? We can treat it like trash and do whatever we want to it? That’s exactly the kind of reasoning that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to combat.

Anyway, I don’t think anyone really goes to that extreme. I think this mis-led thinking is more insidious than that. Nobody says, “Well my soul is saved, so I might as well trash my body now”. But a lot of us are led to think that perhaps reasoning is more important than feeling and that we must subject our passions to our logic. Or some of us might go the other way and think that there are some questions in which “a logical answer isn’t possible” and that you had to trust your intuition. Both beliefs are wrong-headed. The first one is held under the mistaken assumption that you can actually reason objectively without letting your personal biases factor in, biases that are intrinsic to your very being, biases that all humans have because if you don’t have it then you wouldn’t have an identity. The second one is held under the mistaken assumption that intuition precludes logic. Your feelings tell a thousand tales of your reason; just in a language that you don’t understand.

Where am I going with all this? I’m re-reading some of my notes about Kierkegaard. Part of his life’s work is to remind Christians that choosing Christ is neither emotionally nor logically tenable. It’s a choice that’s doesn’t just go against your feelings, it goes against your reason. It is ultimately an “absurd leap of faith”. You didn’t choose Christ by reason; you didn’t do it because it was the most logical decision. You didn’t choose Christ because he fulfilled all your emotional needs. Yes, maybe that was the case on the surface. But ultimately, if you truly understood your faith, you’d realize that throwing all of yourself passionately onto this man-God is a choice that is made in absurdity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you first have to invent the universe

Draper sent me this link: http://melindataub.com/god-twitters-creation/ and it reminded me of a lofty thought I had while I was taking a physics class over the summer. It is called:

How to create the universe in infinity easy steps
1) Create light.
2) Back up a second, you have to invent the concept of creation.
3) You can't back up without first explaining the concept of progress and sequence
4) But you can't have sequence without first setting in place the skeleton of sequence, which is time!
5) Okay, okay, it's clear what we need to do first is invent time.
6) Wait, what do you mean by "first"?
7) First is like, what takes place all the way on one end of the timeline; the end marked "beginning"
8) Alright, seriously, we're getting nowhere with this. If we want to invent time, let's just start by inventing numbers.
9) One....
10) Two...
11) Three...
12) Quick question, if we haven't got sequence yet, is this happening all at once?
13) Yes, and if you keep interrupting me, the universe will never be created!
14) I don't understand your statement
15) Oh right, I forgot. I haven't created the concept of causality yet. Well you see, I had in mind that the universe I created will be governed by these rules which I will call logic. What I just said is an example of a "conditional". It is a truth-function that takes on the form of an "if-then" statement. The truth of the second part (which I will call the apodosis) depends on the truth of the first part (the protasis). Anyway, my point is, the entire world will function this way. It is the language of propositions. It is what my humans will use to describe what's going on. Logic will be the backbone of language.
16) Uh... cool! Can you remind me again, what language is?
17) ...
18) And, what's truth?
19) Also, I forgot to mention, you didn't even explain what a concept is.
20) You seriously have to stop explaining things with other things that you haven't created yet.
21) Oh my God. Screw this.
22) Oh. My. WHAT!?