Quite often it is argued that truth is either objectively and always true or truth is relativistic, fuzzy, and can’t be trusted. For Christian theology, a claim like Jesus is Lord or God is love is usually thought to be the former kind of absolute, objective ‘Truth’ on which everything else is built. The problem with this either/or approach to truth is the fact that humans are inherently relational, story telling, community first creatures. The dichotomy of objectivity vs relativity presumes a form of intellectual individuality that has never existed and, if it did exist, would undercut the very heart of the gospel message. Truth is not grounded in the ability of the human mind to get the words right in arguments. Truth is grounded in the love of God that sets the world right in relationship. Therefore, I’d argue truth is not objective or relativistic – truth is relativtastic.
To clarify what that statement implies regarding ethics, consider how you would answer the following two questions about driving down the road.
1) Is it better to turn right or left at the intersection ahead?
The answer depends on where you’re trying to go.
Far too often we assume that the specific moment of decision is the only factor worth considering in ethical deliberation. To restrict our lens to the moment of decision is to preclude the possibility of our actions leading anywhere in particular. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different if our actions are meant to be in service to any particular goal.
2) Now assume you know the roads and you know where you’re headed. Do you know which way to turn at the intersection?
The answer depends on whether you know where you’re coming from.
Even if we know the goal of the decisions we make, the practical choices to arrive at the same destination are deeply shaped by where we are coming from. The most true and faithful way to act at any given moment may look radically different when our context is shaped by radically different experiences and histories.
In the same way, any time we are asked to consider the ethical implications of a particular word or action, we must consider both the world we believe ought to be created through that word or action as well as the context through which each person affected has arrived at the particular moment in question. No matter how “by the book right” something might seem, it may still have the effect of destroying the very world one hopes to create. No matter how many times one specific word or action may have been right, if the context has changed enough the implications might be the opposite of what they have previously been.
Ethical action is only possible at the intersection of the stories we hope to participate in and the stories that wrote us. In the tension between the world we create with our actions and who we have been up to the point of action, we create the space where the truth of relationship is possible. Ethical words and actions are precisely those that build up relationship and not those that tear it down.
We so often ask only, “what should the individual do in a given moment?” A better question would be, “what would the world look like if our community made abundant life a present reality?” We so often think only, “why are those other people so wrong.” A more fruitful way to think would be, “what is the source of their fear or grief that leads to such opposite conclusions?” To start with a goal in our minds and empathy in our hearts would not solve all the world’s problems. But I sure do believe it would allow us to take at least one correct turn along the way.
That truth is relativtastic is another way to name this essential role of relationship in any ethical analysis.
I think about this kind of analogy a lot in terms of how our most partisan and broken divides play out in the life of the church. Whether it’s abortion, sexuality, immigration, or whatever else you want to name, we often consider only repercussions for moments of choice rather than where we are headed or where we are coming from. In other words, we spend all of our time fighting about the parameters or prohibitions of the laws that we think ought to be put in place. We spend precious little time or energy considering how we can become the kind of people who live in such a way that all but the most extreme cases make no sense as a source of controversy or division.
If we were to become the kind of people that truly value life, we would not allow the possibility of systems and attitudes that tell people their children are a personal burden more than a communal gift. If we were to become the kind of people that know the power of intimacy, partnership, trust, vulnerability, and mutuality, we would not accept that gender is the necessary and sufficient category by which to divide our world and define acceptable marriage. If we were to become the kind of people that embraced and brought to light the gifts all neighbors have to offer, we would not be so ready to abandon common sense or compassion through fear and protectionism.
In short, if we were to build God’s kingdom here and now, there would be no lines in the sand regarding momentary choices because we’d recognize that God’s love is much bigger than our limited boxes can hold. The kingdom of God is a world upside down way of life that calls for nothing short of complete submission to the power of God at work in all things. The kingdom is not a right or left kind of endeavor; the kingdom is an invitation toward a radically different way of life no matter what roads have brought us to where we are now.
Some say that knowledge or intent or consequence or deontology is what matters in determining how moral our actions are.
In the Christian life what matters is that we are already loved, accepted, and enough in the arms of the Lord. Any particular action is an embodiment of that reality or a detriment to it. What matters first and foremost is the unbreakable love of God and only then does our response come into play, not as a pelagian demarcation of ‘morality vs sin’ but as a witness to God’s love or a breaking thereof. That we seem so intent on defining sin without understanding the community that sin breaks is perhaps the single greatest failure of the church today.
Christian apologetics (roughly the scientific, philosophical, and objective search to describe and prove Christianity) was very appealing to me in college. I no longer find the discipline to be particularly helpful or meaningful. My concern is not with the arguments that are offered, but with a particular assumption necessary to make apologetics meaningful.
Apologetics searches for facts and arguments that prove the truth of the Christian story. This effort works exactly opposite of the way the mind, rationality, and knowledge production work. Humans are fundamentally story telling creatures. We go to incredible lengths to fit facts and evidence into the story of reality by which we coherently view the world. Only when facts and evidence dramatically differ from the story we tell are we forced to learn to tell a better story, and even then it may take a generational change to fully embrace a new paradigm.
This concern is so problematic for my understanding of Christian apologetics because the Christian story is necessarily one of the primary stories into which Christians place our experiences and arguments. To “prove” the truth of Christianity through the tools of apologetics is to presume there is some other more fundamental story of reality or rationality into which we can fit the Christian story. To do so is necessarily to treat scientific, philosophical, and other forms of knowledge as more essential, objective, or true than the knowledge the Christian story is capable of asserting. Thus, in the attempt to find a more objective grounding of faith, apologetics cannot help but subvert the fundamentality of the faith it seeks to prove.
I still find plenty of what apologetics has to say to be fascinating and potentially important. I simply think the Christian faith is the context in which apologetics becomes compelling, not the other way around.
Date Given: 7/28/19
It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. I want to start by sharing the story of a photo to illustrate this profoundly important point.
First, a very close up crop of the photo below – looks like a potted plant. Some small pink flowers, plenty of green behind so probably not taken in the dead of winter. Not much else all that worth saying about it unless maybe you’re a botanist and could name a species and maybe then guess a location.
We zoom out. Below you can see the potted plant on the far right hand side, it hasn’t changed at all. Now we see a group of 5 people who look like they’re probably friends. They’re sitting in front of a body of water – so maybe it’s a park. Based on the clothes, my suspicion is right that it’s at least not a cold winter day. Overall it seems like a pleasant and enjoyable setting for a chat with friends.
We zoom out one more time. I have to imagine the smoke in the background, rising from the New York skyline is a fairly unforgettable image for many of us. The photo was taken on September 11th, 2001. This photo appeared in publications shortly after that day and sparked national outrage. “How could a group of people so casually sit and relax when one of the worst terrorist attacks in history was going on in the background?”
What can’t be captured in the photo itself is what was actually in the minds and hearts of the group pictured. If we could zoom out to that level, we’d see what they shared in interviews after the event. They said they couldn’t believe their eyes either. They said they were in a moment of shock and panic. They weren’t relaxed or enjoying themselves at all. They were trying to process a tragedy that would have profound implications for their lives and ours.
It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. So many times in life, it happens like it does with the story this photo tells…the different ways of describing what is happening aren’t exactly right or wrong per se. They simply do the best they can with the information available. The more we zoom out, the more we know. The more we know, the more we have a full picture of what happened. But the great challenge in life is that people always disagree about what pieces of information actually count and whose voices are worth hearing. And even if we agreed on what we’re seeing, we could never be sure that we have a full enough picture to really understand what’s happening.
This may seem like a very theoretical exercise, but it is an essential part of understanding our world right now. I’d argue most of our inability to talk to people across our various, present divides comes from our choices about who to listen to and what to accept as true. The details we’re willing to include in the stories we tell, dramatically shape how we live and relate to one another. The vast, vast majority of our actions and decisions aren’t good or evil per se. Most of what we say and do involves a million tiny, often unconscious choices about whose voices are centered… about whose experiences are taken into account… about what our goal is in telling those stories. Where and when we are raised, the communities with which we identify, our life experiences, and so many more factors lead us to radically different conclusions about whose voice is heard and what to do with the stories we hear.
Those choices we make based on the stories we tell are almost never exactly good or evil, never exactly right or wrong choices. But it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. Almost everything you learn and everything you try to do in response can change. Psalm 51 provides a perfect example of how this process changes what an honest prayer of confession is and what it teaches us. We’ll view this story at four different levels.
On a very straightforward reading, we find a powerful offering of prayer from a remorseful heart. Psalm 51 begins – “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” This is the confessional prayer at the heart of a Christian life. Every time we gather we are invited to admit our mistakes knowing that God mends our broken hearts and makes all things new.
The psalm goes on, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” The movement from confession to hope, from admission of guilt to restoration of joy – this might just be the single most consistent cycle in the life of God’s people. Psalm 51 provides beautiful imagery to capture the heart of this very movement. This is, plain and simple, a powerful and honest prayer of regret.
We zoom out. There are subheadings you have probably noticed if you’ve ever opened a Bible. Below are the subheadings in the version I typically use for study. You’ll notice there are three lines before verse 1 begins. The first is psalm 51, simply giving the number of the psalm.
The second says “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon.” The third says, “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” You may or may not know that none of those three lines would have been found in the very earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Original manuscripts were written in Hebrew and didn’t even bother to include spaces between words. The numbering system of chapters and verses was added much later. The second line, “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon” was added when my particular Bible translation was created, probably in the late 1980s. You may find a similar line in your own translation or you may find something totally different or nothing at all in its place. It’s simply a topic marker to help name what various paragraphs and stories are about.
The third line is most interesting for our purpose today. “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This heading is far more ancient, going back at least 2000 years or more. These headings are found in early Bible manuscripts but were not assigned numbers when chapter and verse numbers were added much later. Why that is the case could take weeks to explore. For today the important takeaway is to realize how this heading helps us see the larger picture. Psalm 51 is not meant as a generic prayer of confession; it is meant to show us the heart of David, this man after God’s own heart, just after he was confronted about his most shameful act.
David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and she had become pregnant. Then, rather than owning his mistake, David attempted a cover up. And when that failed, he had Bathsheba’s husband, named Uriah, killed. Nathan confronted David about his shameful conduct and exposed the errors and/or crimes David had committed. This is the context of the heartfelt prayer of confession that we read in Psalm 51. It’s about like zooming out from the potted plant to the level of people in the park. What we find doesn’t fundamentally change, but there is a whole new level of clarity offered about just how bad the sins were… and about just how deep and powerful the love of God can go to heal our deepest wounds. This powerful prayer is seen to be a profound act of humility by one of the most powerful of God’s servants.
We zoom out again. One of the difficult things to recognize when we read scripture is how deeply shaped the stories are by culture and authority. The stories we read are told by the people with some level of power and influence. The stories usually center the experiences and voices of the few most powerful or influential people involved. That claim isn’t a knock on scripture, it’s just an important truth to embrace if we want to understand the world of the Bible. A lot begins to change if we’re willing to hear the same stories through the eyes of the secondary characters.
Very little detail is offered about the beginnings of Bathsheba’s story. She is simply seen by David, taken to the king’s house, and only speaks her first words through a messenger when she discovers later that she is pregnant. There’s nothing in the story to imply that adultery is actually the right word. David, as king, has complete authority over her life. The prophets had warned God’s people that this would be the case when they begged God to have a king. The prophets said, “when you’re a king, you can do anything you want. Grab the women you want, send the sons off to war.” But God’s people still begged for a king. And the warning of the prophets came true.
Only one of the participants here had any desire or say in what happened. To hear the prayer of Psalm 51 in light of the power dynamics at play is to hear a very different kind of prayer. I’m honestly not sure what we’re supposed to do with a line like, “Against you alone oh Lord, have I sinned.” I don’t know what to do with it but it sure sounds different in this light. If the only voice we’re willing to hear is the one powerful enough to have his words written down, then we miss an incredibly significant piece of the story. We are clearly still looking at the same picture, it is still a humble prayer of confession from a powerful man; but everything changes when we imagine David’s prayer through Bathsheba’s eyes.
We zoom out one last time. We started with the heartfelt prayer of an unknown person. We saw that it is David’s prayer that we are invited to imagine. We were challenged to imagine that same story through Bathsheba’s eyes. But now we have to step back farther; far enough to see that the effects of David’s actions echo much farther out.
In many ways, Nathan confronting David is a watershed moment in the history of God’s people. There are twists and turns and ups and downs all over the place before and after David. But up until David did what he did, the general trend was in favor of God’s people taking control of the promised land and becoming who they were supposed to be. After David did what he did there is a downhill slide toward defeat. God told David the sword will not depart from you…and it didn’t; all the way up until God’s people were defeated, removed from power, and exiled from the land.
David’s actions set in motion a cascade of events that would dramatically alter the lives of his entire nation for generations. But the effect on one specific individual might just be more heartbreaking to me than all the rest. By the time Nathan confronted David, Bathsheba had conceived and given birth to a child with David. Nathan told David, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” That tiny, innocent baby died just 7 days later.
There are plenty of thorny theological questions raised by this moment. Did God take the child as punishment? What would it say about God if so? Is it better to say God merely let it happen? I don’t have time to adequately address all the follow up questions that are certainly worth asking, but I’ll just say this. Everything I know and have been taught about God tells me that God absolutely does not take away our loved ones or punish us with grief as a response to things we do. The idea that God does so is a way that we try to make sense out of a sometimes senseless world. God’s desire is for us to find hope and healing, never to punish us or cause us pain.
But here’s what I also know to be the case; our actions have consequences far beyond those we might intend. And coming to grips with those consequences can be one of the most complicated, challenging things we do in life. When I look into the eyes of our precious little 9 month old Hutch, I cannot bear the weight of imagining that anything I do will cause him lasting harm. Yet I also know every parent makes plenty of mistakes in their own special way all the time. Believing that we are responsible for the harm of our loved ones can easily lead us into a spiral of shame. It is far easier to simply deny their pain than to accept that something we did could in any way be related.
Our willingness to believe the difficult truth is proportional to how much we can stomach. In other words, when someone’s pain is too much to fix, we’d rather ignore their voice than grapple with a wound that can’t be easily healed. We’d rather tell a different story than face the possibility we did anything wrong. And it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. But brokenness is never healed simply because we deny that part of the story exists. Silencing the voice of pain is about the surest way to cause long term damage.
No matter who intends what or what the actual causation may be, it is vital that we do not close our eyes to the suffering of others. Racism, sexism, classism, and all the other isms of the world are the same kind of complicated, deep seated, daunting problems on a societal level. Some would rather pretend like the problems are fixed; others cannot help but name their pain.
Refusing to look beyond our side of the story, refusing to hear the voices of the powerless, refusing to accept that we are yet sinners in more ways than we know … to do so is to hide from the grace of God. To do so is to seek control rather than forgiveness. It is to do exactly the opposite of what Christ did upon the cross.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the vulnerability of our God. Jesus did not come to tell us that things really aren’t that bad. When people lashed out at God and blamed God for everything, God’s ultimate response was not to shout down our misunderstanding, misrepresenting, mistaken words and actions. In the cross of Christ, God instead humbled himself to our level. God said very clearly, “There is no where you could go that I have not already gone. There is no shame you could feel that I have not already felt. There is no brokenness you could cause that I have not already healed. I feel what you feel and my reckless love is strong enough to overcome it all.”
The vast majority of the decisions we make and the ways that we hurt each other do not mean that one side is good and the other side is evil. Far more often than not, especially in a partisan and divided time like ours, each of us are choosing to value different voices and different parts of the story. These are not exactly good and evil decisions but they dramatically change the way we feel about the people involved and what ought to be done in response. In our quest to heal the wounds of our world, we could all stand to remember how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include.
An honest prayer to God invites us to never run from the things we have done or left undone; it requires that we listen even to the voices that make us question our own self perception; it deeply challenges us not to pretend to be better than we are; it forces us to trust in the one who leaves the 99 just to find us.
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise.” In other words, we are invited to embrace our imperfections, to admit the harm we cause, to listen to the stories of others, and to trust that God’s love goes deeper. To trust that even though we fall short in ways we don’t intend and maybe don’t even know, God’s reckless love is still for us.
Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us.
We are loved no matter what. Therefore we can bring all that we have and all that we are, we can bring our whole story, even the parts we’d rather hide from the world or deny altogether; we can bring it all to the foot of the cross, knowing that God will wash us whiter than snow; and God will make us new.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the midst of our broken and divided moment in the life of the UMC, one of the talking points that so often frustrates me is the implication that how we are supposed to live never changes. While I believe that we have been and always will be called to embody the love of God, I cannot help but think that living out that love ought to look different in different seasons of life and at different moments in time. The question should not be “do we do the exact same thing always?” but “do we seek to embody the exact same kind of love for our time and place?”
To assume it is a given that we should do the exact same thing is as absurd as assuming there is exactly one right way to parent for your child’s entire lifetime. Tucking your kid in at night and saying I love you at the end of every goodbye might both be vital ways of conveying love to your child. But one only makes sense for a season of life and the importance of the other endures.
We should always be striving to ask what the shape of God’s love looks like here and now rather than assuming that the specific practices that constitute a faithful life will never change. That we only ever seem confident about what counts as sin rather than what embodies love is a reminder of where our true brokenness resides.
“How does one make in the moment ethical decisions?” is the only question popular ethics ever seems to explore. It may be argued that intent or consequence or some other factor is most important for the ethical calculus of the decision, but in the center of the exercise is always a decision that must be made. The unspoken assumption within the question is that there is an agent who is capable of making a decision regardless of the context and narrative in which that person operates. But, the narrative of the agent’s life is the only context in which an agent can have agency.
The context that creates the agent is thereby the necessary and sufficient arena in which ethics is able to meaningfully determine or describe right from wrong. Changing the context changes the agent, which changes the calculus surrounding any decision. The more important question is something like, “what kind of people should be created such that the moment of decision is no longer a meaningful point at which to make an argument about what ought to be done and how then do we create the world that creates that kind of person?”
The greatest shortcoming of popular ethical debates is the notion that there can be a distinct moment or act of decision that can be analyzed in any meaningful way. All behavior makes sense in context and it is the context that must be challenged and changed if we are to create ethical people.