Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Difference Between Humility and Self-Deprecation

Perhaps one of the great things about public transport is that you get the opportunity to witness society in of its dysfunctional glory. Whether it is businessmen talking loudly enough on their mobile phones about their sex life for everyone else to hear, people talking to themselves or fellow travellers engaging in mind-numbing banalities, public transport seems to have that ability to produce the absurd. For that reason, most travellers prefer to mind their own business. Indeed, this was what I was doing the other day as I started reading through my copy of "Les Miserables". Perhaps this was a bad choice, because a girl of about my age became interested in my book and started talking to me. Realising that there was no way that I was going to get any more reading done, I put the book back in my bag and started to engage with her in conversation.

I'd like to think that I'm not a rude person, so I asked the standard bus conversation question: "Where are you heading?" As it turned out, she was volunteering as a crew member for the Anthony Robbins motivational seminars at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Making a fatal mistake, I feigned interest in the subject matter. I must be a fairly good actor, because before long she was recommending that I try the Anthony Robbins experience for myself.

As we approached Hay St, she rose from her seat and alighted from the bus. She asked me if I would like to walk with her to the Entertainment Centre since it was more or less only a slight detour en route to my destination. I can only assume I thought that was trying to pick me up because I agreed to her suggestion. As it turned out, the more likely explanation was that she was simply wanting to hock some Anthony Robbins merchandise. She escorted me into the foyer of the Entertainment Centre and showed me to the desk where the Anthony Robbins products were being sold. Looking at all of these overpriced products with happy, smiling people I thought I had just entered into Hillsong. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I had no desire to "Get the Edge" and that I was actually quite content being a "Minister of Incompetence", so I took a brochure and told her in a rather nondescript manner that the products looked interesting. I then thanked her for her time, told her genuinely that it was lovely to meet her and then went on my way.

I must admit that the whole incident got me thinking. Not about whether a relationship between a self-improvement junkie and a Minister of Incompetence could work out in this crazy world, but about the relationship between self-abasement and self-esteem. More particularly, I reflected upon whether the two concepts were necessarily mutually exclusive or whether they could happily coexist. I mean is self-confidence really all that bad? Is low self-esteem the same thing as humility? Reflecting upon this, I came up with the following principles:

(1) We are products of God's creation - Surely this suggests that each individual is of immeasureable worth. As the Psalmist remarks, we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). We cannot denigrate ourselves as worthless without denigrating the work of the Creator.

(2) We are made in God's image - We are not simply part of the creation - we have been carved in God's image (Genesis 1:27). That God has seen fit to bless us in this manner speaks volumes of our intrinsic worth.

(3) It is perfectly legitimate to recognise that there are areas where we have been gifted by God - God has given us all natural talents and abilities. What's more, we are expected to be good stewards of these gifts (Matthew 25:14-30). Good stewardship in this context usually means using these gifts to serve others (Romans 12:3-8). Only by acknowledging the fact that we are gifted in a certain area can we begin to use our gifts. Pretending that we don't possess these gifts doesn't help anyone and it doesn't glorify God. Such an attitude does not reflect humility, but rather false humility.

(4) We should not be proud of our abilities, but rather grateful - I'm not responsible for my abilities - rather my abilities are a product of the genetic lottery. Even if one's success is through hard work, it may still be said that they were genetically predisposed with the ability to apply themselves. We have been graciously granted these abilities by God, who is the author of every good gift (James 1:17).

(5) Thinking lowly of ourselves is not always humility - It may seem counter-intuitive, but I think that wallowing in self-pity is a strange form of pride. I mean, why would we spend so much time reflecting upon how terrible we were unless on some level we felt that our own miseries were important enough to dominate our thinking? Of course there's nothing wrong with acknowledging our flaws and weaknesses, but if we allow these things to consume our thinking at the expense of others, we paradoxically grant ourselves greater importance than others.

From these considerations, I've concluded that humility is actually quite a pragmatic concept. To my way of thinking humility is not so much about denigrating yourself as it is about choosing to forego the glory and honour that is usually associating with the exercise of one's gifts. Humility is actually a more accurate appraisal of one's self because it is the sober recognition that we are no more responsible for our abilities and talents than we are for the colour our eyes and as such we are not worthy of glory and honour. Furthermore, humility manifests itself in the time that we spend dedicated towards serving the interests of others. For this reason, Paul couples humility with the service of others and not with self-deprecation (Philippians 2:3-4). To put others interests before ourselves and indeed even before thoughts of our own inadequacies and weaknesses is what humility is all about.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The 2007 Electoral Debates

With all the subtlety of a schoolyard bully, Kevin "look at me, generation Y" Rudd has challenged Howard "'57" (1957, that is) to a series of three debates. Of the three debates, one must take place on You Tube and another on the ABC. Clearly, this move is directed towards undermining Howard's honour (or what might be called "honour", anyway) in the playground. If Howard backs away from this backyard brawl, he risks being labelled a "chicken" by Rudd, although my guess is that Rudd will couch the insult in more sophisticated parlance, or possibly Mandarin.

Anticipating these events, it is clear that Howard will have to counter by suggesting a venue where he would feel much more comfortable - but where?

Kirribilli House?

Rooty Hill RSL?

Brentwood Village Retirement Home?

I really don't know - has anyone got any suggestions?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Keys to the Lodge '07

As the political climate warms up, a number of my colleagues have started a blog covering the campaign called Keys to the Lodge '07. The idea is to keep the public informed about the issues that matter - the number of times the leaders kiss babies, the vapid cliches used and the fashion on the field. Quite simply, they'll be providing the latest news, views and shoes. They'll also be conducting polls that gauge the mood of the nation and the things that you want to speak about most.

Join to be in the know today!

Friday, September 14, 2007

WWPD - What Would Paul Do?

St Paul of Tarsus is an undeniably controversial figure. To some, he is God's great messenger to the non-Jewish nations. To others, he is blamed for a great many evils in this world, including slavery, the oppression of women and homophobia. Still, others regard him as the real founder of Christianity, starting a new religion quite distinct from the teachings of Jesus. But just who is this Paul, and how does a fuller understanding of his character and experiences help us to understand more clearly what he wrote? Join me at Space For God on Sunday night as I offer a few of my thoughts and give you a chance to offer some of yours.

Deconstructing Archbishop Jensen

... or his message on Wednesday night, that is.

A number of people have actually asked me what I made of Archbishop Jensen's talk from Luke 18:18-30 on Wednesday night. So, on the presumption that my opinions actually have some weight, I thought I might provide an "outsider's perspective" of some things that stood out to me:

(1) Jensen started by talking about centrality of relationships in human existence, which was a self-evident starting point for a mission entitled "The Ultimate Relationship". He communicated this point particularly poignantly, speaking about the joys and sorrows that relationships bring us. It made me think about the fact that I have always held the supreme importance of relationships in my life as undeniably true. Funnily enough though, I have never sought to prove this logically. Sure enough, one could appeal to a biological basis for relationships, but I've held relationships as important even before this line of thinking had occurred to me. It was an important reminder that some of the greatest truths in this world are intuitive rather than logical.

(2) Jensen also talked about some of the things which militate against quality relationships, including individualism and consumerism. While I wouldn't agree with Jensen that individualism has been an "unmitigated disaster" as he expressed, I'd certainly agree with him that the relentless pursuit of individualism at the expense of community has proved to be particularly problematic, both individually and corporately. Of course, I couldn't agree with him more about the devastating effect that consumerism and materialism has had upon relationships. Jensen's reminder that we have become asset rich, yet time poor and hence relationship poor is an important corrective in contemporary society.

(3) In order to switch focus from human relationships towards our relationship with God, Jensen spoke about the reliability of relationships and the fact that there are certain points in life that our closest human relationships will fail us. In particular, he pointed out that death is a process we ultimately travel through alone. I thought that this was rhetorically powerful, precisely because I am sure that there has been a point in every person's life when they have felt the pain of feeling alone.

(4) After talking about the profile of the rich young ruler and his question, Jensen focused on Jesus' directive for the man to sell all of his possessions and come and follow him. I was really glad that Jensen didn't qualify this verse by adding the caveat that simply because Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions, it doesn't mean that we are expected to do the same. I have heard many speakers do this - and it annoys me every time, because I see it as a concession to an increasingly consumerist and middle-class church. If people hear this request and are shocked, then I think the story has served its purpose. People are meant to be shocked because it is the Ultimate Ultimatum - The Money or the Son. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, grace may very well be free, but it certainly isn't cheap.

(5) Jensen finished up with a standard "sinner's prayer" which was more or less evangelical in focus. While my understanding of the atonement is somewhat different from that held by evangelicalism, I have no great objection to this type of prayer itself. However, the prayer did seem strangely out of place given the context of the talk. For myself and others aware of the evangelical gospel, Jesus dying for our sins and paying the penalty are familiar concepts, but to the newcomer, such talk probably would have seemed bewildering considering that it didn't really figure in the talk itself.

All of the above said, I both enjoyed and appreciated Jensen's talk. I can't say I was "pleasantly surprised", because I have heard Jensen talk before and accordingly already held high expectations. This said, my expectations were not disappointed. Finally, I should point out that the message of relationship and discipleship of Jesus and the forsaking of the world to pursue these objectives that is central to this narrative is both familiar and of critical important to my more liberal church community at Space For God. I couldn't have imagined anyone in this community having too much to object to in the thoughtful and effective way in which Jensen presented these motifs.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I'm Hearing Archbishop Peter Jensen Talk Tonight

Christians in the Media are hosting Archbishop Jensen tonight to kick-off their "Starting the Ultimate Relationship" mission. As chief Sydney Anglican watchdog, I felt that I had a responsibility to attend.

Rumour has it that there will be APEC-style fences up in place and people may experience delays travelling down Parramatta Rd and Johnston St. Furthermore, security personnel have been told to shoot to kill, so it's unlikely that I'll be trying any Chaser-style stunts. At least that's my intention.

To those at Christians in the Media who are concerned about the fact that I am attending tonight, I'll have you know that I will be on my best behaviour ...

Bible Contradictions

Perhaps one of the issues that led me away from evangelicalism was the issue of biblical inerrancy. In short, to suggest that the Bible is inerrant is to say that the Bible contains no two pieces of Scripture that contradict each other when understood in context. Over time and through continued Bible study I came to view this position as increasingly untenable. Yet as important as biblical inerrancy is in the evangelical schema, it was not the nature of the Bible itself that lead me away from evangelicalism. Rather, it was the way in which evangelicals dealt with the Bible in order to maintain their position of inerrancy that concerned me most. I began to observe that despite remonstrations to the contrary, evangelicals in actual fact had no real love for Scripture, a point to which I shall return to later in this essay.

The issue of contradictions in the Bible has been raised by Craig Schwarze at his blog, "These Infinite Spaces". It is clear that Craig believes that the Bible is inerrant, or infallible, depending upon the terminology one wishes to use. Reading through the comments, Schwarze reveals that his belief in the inerrant nature of the Bible is a mere assumption, or what he chooses to call a "presupposition". Exactly why he has chosen this presupposition rather than being open to the possibility of Scripture perhaps being errant is unclear.

As one travels further into Schwarze's train of thought, it becomes clear that he has set up a number of mechanisms in his mind to avoid seriously examining the issue of biblical inerrancy. Not only is Schwarze's belief in the inerrancy of Scripture a mere presumption - it is an irrebutable presumption. When Schwarze is faced with an accusation that two verse contradict each other, his first port of call will be to engage in a process called "harmonisation". Harmonisation essentially involves moulding and massaging two texts into shape until they agree with each other. If he can't do this, Schwarze will simply assume that he currently lacks the understanding to properly interpret these verses and that in due course, the contradictions will be resolved. Ironically, it is generally only these problematic passages that are unclear (even if the verses would apparently seem to look straight forward) - evangelicalism claims an almost dogmatic certainty on all other parts of Scripture. The possibility doesn't even seem to occur to Schwarze that he indeed accurately understood the two passages and that his understanding confirms that Scripture does indeed contain contradictions.

Schwarze's contention that contradictions that can't be easily explained away must be the fault of the reader rather than the text directly runs into a distinctive of conservative Protestantism - the perspicuity of Scripture. Conservative Protestants generally assert that Scripture is comprehensible by the lay person and that one doesn't need an authority to interpret the text. Quite clearly, this claim aims to circumvent the Roman Catholic argument that scriptural interpretation is the province of the Vatican alone. Yet Schwarze would seem to be suggesting that Scripture is difficult to understand at certain points (which coincedentally correspond with passages that are alleged to contradict with each other), to such an extent that a proper understanding of certain bible passages remain elusive to the reader until at least a later point in time. Of course, this raises another dilemma - what is the point of having an inerrant set of Scriptures if one can't actually understand what they say?

The presupposition of biblical inerrancy is a harsh and demanding mistress. In evangelical thought, it commands respect above all else, including the Bible itself. If normative principles of hermeneutics lead to an understanding of Scripture contradicting itself, then these principles must be set aside to appease the bleeting voice of inerrancy. If there is a straight forward reading of a text which threatens the doctrine of inerrancy, the straight forward reading must lay its life down at the feet of inerrancy to make way for a more obscure reading that satisfies its ravenous appetite.

This returns us to my first point - evangelicalism is not so much concerned with understanding the Bible as it is with maintaining the doctrine of inerrancy. For evangelicals, biblical inerrancy is the idol that they worship. And ultimately this means that they worship themselves, because biblical inerrancy is a product of their own making. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of serving this idol - not even the Bible itself.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Is Space For God Simply a "Glorified Good Works Club"?

At Space For God we don't believe that one comes to God by uttering a series of shibboleths. Indeed, we believe that speaking in Christianese generally only serves to alienate outsiders. Accordingly our commitment to speak in "outsider language" raises the suspicions of those who believe that secret passwords initate one into the Christian community. I mean, if a church doesn't use words such as justification, sanctification or propitiation, how can they really call themselves a Christian community?

Space For God also desires to be actively involved in pursuing social justice, whether that be as individuals or as a community. Again, "social justice" is one of those phrases that arouses an element of suspicion in the wider Christian community. Accordingly, a conservative Christian friend of mine asked whether the Emerging Church in general and Space For God more specifically was little more than a glorified good works club. Wouldn't we be better off, he argued, simply joining Rotary or another charitable organisation?

Questions such as those asked by my friend don't really annoy me. On the contrary, such questions indicate at least a surface level interest in what we do at Space For God. What's more, such questions provide an opportunity for closer self-examination and scrutiny. And considering that the people at Space For God are not afraid of facing difficult questions, this is precisely what I did - I raised the question for consideration on the Space For God retreat.

Bek, our correspondent from Ireland, gave this response.

Yes, that's right. You'll have to click on the link to find out ...