I’m a Christian and an LGBT Ally: Here’s Why…


Well, I guess this is it: I’m officially coming out of the closet.

No, I’m not gay or transgender or bisexual. It just so happens that I conform to traditional norms in my sexual orientation. However, I am in this post “coming out” in full support of those who don’t.

I don’t mean to appropriate the “coming out” designation, as if I can in any way compare what I’m doing here to the courage LGBT folks must summon to risk the scrutiny and shame of revealing this piece of their identity to the world. Let’s be clear–comparatively speaking, my “coming out” is a walk in the park on a sunny day. Really. I’ve got it easy.

That being said, there is some risk for people like me too. I come from a very fundamentalist Christian background. I grew up in a socially conservative denomination and, when I became an adult, entered into a more socially conservative sect so strict that it counted my childhood beliefs as heresy. In short, homosexuality has always been considered sinful in my religious tradition and to suggest otherwise would be compromising my Christian values to appease changing cultural norms. Up until a little over a year ago, I didn’t know there was any other way to be a Christian.

At this point, most of the people I associate with would consider themselves “progressive Christians” (yeah, believe it or not, that’s a thing). Nevertheless, I still have many family members and old friends who would be disappointed, indignant, appalled, and outraged by this revelation. Nevertheless, it is what it is. It’s who I am now, and it’s where I am now; there’s no use pretending otherwise. So, in case there is confusion, let me be as clear as I possibly can:

I fully accept people who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and queer as children of God who–to the same extent as Christians who do not identify as such–are forgiven, redeemed, saved, justified and liberated while not being in any way condemned for their sexual orientation. Whether manifest in mere inclinations or in actual behaviors, I do not believe that sexual proclivities (provided the relationship, if there be one, is consensual) has any affect whatsoever on a human being’s standing before God. Homosexuality is not a sin.

How I Got Here…

For the most part, my shift in thinking on this particular issue is the result of a broader shift in my understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. In 2013, I underwent a deeply humbling experience that caused me to rethink the “know-it-all” mentality with which I’d been living my life and instead adopt a posture of openness and curiosity. While this shift wasn’t necessarily religious in nature, I was a religious person so, naturally, it bled over into my religious life.

I started questioning the particular branch of Christianity I was in, and then why I should even remain a Christian at all. I dove headfirst into the most reputable sources I could find on church history, Biblical criticism, and postmodern theology. All of that wasn’t too long ago, and I’m still working out what I believe and why it matters. In my searching, though, one of the many things I began to reconsider was whether or not I could find any ethical justification for an opposition to LGBT lifestyles.

Then, the Pulse shooting happened. At that point, I think I had already made up my mind about full acceptance of the LGBT community, but the massacre in Orlando really forced me to make it explicitly clear–if only to myself. Around that time, I started following LGBT theologians on Twitter–people like Broderick Greer, Austen Hartke, Dianna Anderson, and Samantha Field. I started hearing heartbreaking stories about the experiences of LGBT people in the church–the abuse, the shame, and the social ostracism. The more I listened to them on their terms, the more absurd it seemed that I could have ever been part of a system that fostered such painful experiences while still calling myself a Christian.

Somehow, I have grown up with the uncanny ability to disassociate the compassionate Jesus of the gospels who befriended the outcasts of society and scoffed at prioritizing ritual purity with the Jesus of American Evangelicalism who calls me first and foremost to ritual purity and only then to being nice to the outsiders if they too are willing to conform. Well, not anymore. I’ve gone back to the Jesus of the gospels.

The Jesus of the gospels was all about love. He served people instead of shaming them. He healed, fed, comforted, and forgave. He didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone… Okay, that isn’t true. Actually, Jesus did criticize some people. But he reserved his judgment for the religious elite–the self-righteous hypocrites who looked down on everybody else. To a large extent, the gospel narratives show us a Jesus who came not to save people from their sins–but rather a Jesus who came to save people from the sins of others. That’s the Jesus I believe in; that’s the Jesus I seek to follow.

I’ve been wrestling for a long time with whether or not I should write this post. First, I am admittedly dreading the potential upheaval and I really don’t want to have those debates. I’m still working out my ideas about God and faith, and I’m not sure my nuanced, speculative spirituality is a rhetorical match for the dogmatic certainty of others.

Also, though, I don’t want to make this issue about me. A post like this is a bit pretentious and self-aggrandizing. “Ooh, look at me, I’m being all vulnerable and stuff. Can I have my cookie now?” I feel like, as I’m expressing my fears over the rejection and criticism I’m likely to encounter, the entire LGBT community is going, “Hold my beer…”

Ultimately, I made up my mind about “coming out” when the following tweet crept across my feed:

I am not trying to stir up controversy or cause trouble. I’m not trying to start a fight with other Christians about what the Bible really says or whose side Jesus is really on. For me, this isn’t about a debate between conservative and liberal strains of Christianity. Rather, it’s about letting people in the LGBT community know that I fully value them as human beings. It’s about me making it public that I’m on their side, because I believe Jesus would be too…

“But the Bible says…”

Okay, time to address the elephant in the room. Presumably, the reason why Christians are so opposed to same-sex relationships is that they are condemned in the Bible–the sacred scriptures of the Christian faith.

I’m not going to go into detail on this–you can google it if you are unfamiliar with the texts, but there are a smattering of passages where “homosexuality” is condemned in the Bible: from Leviticus 20:13 where the law of Moses calls for the death of one who “lies with a man as with a woman” to 1 Corinthians 6:9 where Paul  lists “men who have sex with men” among things such as theft, greed, and slander that will keep people out of the “kingdom of God.” For the person who wants to take the Bible seriously, these passages can be rather problematic.

That’s the story I grew up with, anyway. And, although I’ve felt the growing disinclination to condemn same-sex relationships for years, I didn’t think I could because that would mean throwing out the Bible. God said it; I believe it; that settles it–even if it hurts people. Truth is truth…isn’t it?

Well, it turns out that interpreting the scriptures is a much more nuanced art form than I was raised to believe. The true meaning of the text (however we define it) doesn’t just jump off the page when we read it today in 21st century English. To get an accurate reading, you’ve got to understand ancient languages and cultures, as well as the motives of the authors. A deeper reading of scriptures provides alternative understandings for all sorts of issues. In particular, as scholars, theologians, and ministers have wrestled with the “homosexuality” passages, non-traditional interpretations have emerged.

For example, it might be suggested that condemnation of “homosexuality” in Leviticus can only be understood under the broader umbrella of “purity” laws for their community at the time. And, perhaps same-sex relationships were condemned so strongly because procreation was important for the continuing growth of the Israelite nation.

Or, if we look at the condemnation of homosexuality in the New Testament, it can be understood in terms of the Roman cultural custom of the day for men to have younger male sex slaves. The word Paul uses in Corinthians, it is often pointed out, is a word he invented. So, perhaps he was speaking of a particular form of same-sex relationships rather than same-sex relationships in general.

If you’d like to see a more in-depth analysis of the “homosexuality” passages, I recommend checking out this article. Now, before you bristle at this kind of scholarship as liberal propaganda or the work of Satan, think about this…

Perhaps the traditional reading of scriptures is right; perhaps same-sex relationships are sins that need to be repented of. But, before you rush to that conclusion, I want you to seriously ask yourself a very important question–and say it out loud if you need to: “What if I’m wrong?”

If you don’t feel the slightest bit of hesitation when you ask yourself this question, you’re probably blissfully unaware of the suffering endured by the LGBT community as a result of discrimination–much of it coming from people who claim to be Christians.

You probably don’t know that the rate of suicide among LGB youth is 4 times the rate of that among straight youth. And, if you think that’s just because they know they’re guilty of sin, you probably aren’t aware that suicide among LGB youth whose families reject them is 8 times higher than that among LGB youth who report no rejection from their families. Do you even care that, each time an LGBT person is victimized, their chances of inflicting self-harm increase by 2.5 times?

The harm your view is causing LGBT people might be worth thinking about because, if you are wrong when you condemn them to shame in this life and punishment in the next, where exactly do you think your soul is going to end up?

If for nothing else than for concern over your own salvation, you might want to ask, “Is condemnation of same-sex relationships really worth the risk?” When it comes to this new take on Pascal’s wager, I think I’ll leave this section with a gem I heard recently from my pastor–just something to think about as you are trying to decide your own position on the issue:

I would rather have to explain to God why I let someone into heaven than why I kept someone out.

I’m sorry it took me so long…

In conclusion, I would just like to briefly address anyone from the LGBT community who might be reading this. I’m sorry for any pain that I’ve caused you–whether overtly or merely by being complicit in your persecution. I now believe that you are fully loved and accepted by God, to the same degree as anyone else. I also don’t think you need me to tell you that; you are your own person and don’t need my validation. I just want you to know that I’m here now, and I’m listening.

I hope you’ll forgive me for taking so long to come to this conclusion and make it known to the public. I still have a lot to learn, and I can only ask for grace as I seek to be a better human being. Please be patient with me. I will mess up. I will get it wrong. I will look the other way when you need me to intervene. I am weak, but I will try my best to be strong. I can’t promise that I won’t disappoint you in the future but, for now, I can honestly say with every fiber of my being that I am proud to be an ally.

Image credit: I google searched for a “rainbow cross” and happened across an article regarding the one pictured above. Apparently, someone had been anonymously chaining a large wooden cross to posts on “Gay Street” in New York–presumably sending a passive aggressive message of condemnation to the LGBT folks living there. The people from the community reacted by creating their own cross and covering it with a rainbow–sending a message of love and inclusion instead. The story seemed rather apropos for my thoughts in this post, so I thought it would be the perfect image to use… https://www.popsugar.com/news/Gay-Street-Rainbow-Cross-New-York-City-43463838

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Sometimes We Lose Our Way

Sometimes we lose our way.

Three years ago today, I published my curiosity manifesto. At the time, I had recently gone through a humbling experience that forced me to take a good, hard look at the approach I was taking in life. As I took a step back to think about the kind of person I really wanted to be, ideas started pouring in and I decided to write them down. Three weeks later, I had finished my first book–a sort of pop-psychology self-help book I called simply THE CURIOSITY MANIFESTO.

As the months passed, I realized that this piece of writing meant more to me than I had originally thought it would. I had thought that I had a great and powerful message for the world to hear, and I just had to get it out. I quickly realized, though, that my curiosity manifesto was more of a message for me than it was for anyone else. In writing the book, I had ironed out the kind of person I wanted to be. I had discovered my core value, the focal point around which I wished to build my way of being in the world. That foundation, that ever-present anchor in the storm of shifting values–for me–was curiosity.

Over the next few years, I began deliberately seeking out ways to become more curious. I started listening to people with an open-mind, assuming I had more to learn than I had to teach. I started learning about and trying new things. I started challenging my long-held personal beliefs about the way the world works. For the first time in my life, really, I felt proud of the person I was becoming. I can’t speak for everyone else but, for me, curiosity had become the means of finding a fulfilling life.

And then came the 2016 election. Like so many others, I got sucked in to the rage and hysteria. As a candidate, I had found Donald Trump’s demeanor so repulsive that–over time–I lost my center. I became adamantly outspoken against Trump, and I stopped being curious. In the months since Trump was elected President of the United States, I’ve had some time to step back and rethink my outrage. And here’s my conclusion:

I was wrong.

It’s not that I believe that I was wrong about Donald Trump. Ideology aside, his basic approach goes against everything I believe in. But I believe wholeheartedly that I was wrong about the way I approached him and his supporters. Too often, I found myself closing my mind and opening my mouth. I stopped listening. And I began selectively seeking out information that confirmed my beliefs.

So, I would like to take this moment to apologize to anyone supportive of or sympathetic to Donald Trump that I may have offended in my many angry tirades over the last year. You all deserve a better listener. But, more to the point, I want to apologize to myself. I’ve deviated from the path and gotten lost in the wilderness. It’s time I come back home, because I deserve a better me. I can’t promise that I’ll turn things around and all of a sudden drop this political angst that has been building up in me over the last year, but I can promise that I will try.

Now, I also want to take a moment to recognize the nuanced nature of such a confession. I have many liberal friends who are still at war with Trump and his supporters, and I think some of them may view such a gesture as nothing more than faint-hearted appeasement. To some, I may be coming to terms with the error of my ways but, to others, I am giving up the good fight. While the mantra “Resist!” continues to ring out loudly from hoards of protestors throughout the nation, I am quietly offering a new mantra for engaging with political foes in Trump’s America: “Reflect.”

Surely, there is a line at which injustices became so egregious that level-headedness becomes a euphemism for acquiescence. As someone who is privileged in many ways that others aren’t, I do not want to sit idly by in silence as marginalized groups are deprived of their basic rights. I don’t want to try to reason with a monster, and I do want to continue to stand up for those who have no one to advocate for them. I want to be curious. I want to be sensible, prudent, and sober-minded. But I also recognize that such a posture is a luxury that some simply cannot afford.

So I offer no condemnation to those who feel they must continue to fight. I don’t know any more than anyone else about how this is all going to play out. I may be greatly indebted to the “resistors” as time goes by, or I may look back and think they took things too far. But, regardless, I want to be clear: this confession is not about what I think others should or should not do. This is about me. I have not been true to myself, and it’s time I make that right.

This shift does not mean that I’m going to all of a sudden agree with Trump supporters or recognize every point offered by “the other side” as equally valid. But it does mean that I’m going to stop seeing things as “my side” and “the other side.” I’ve stopped following heavily liberal media and have started following moderately conservative media. I’ve reconnected on Facebook with many of those who I shut out during the election. And I’m sincerely trying to understand the reasons behind people’s beliefs before I condemn them or ridicule them.

So, that’s it. Just needed to get this off my chest. I need to find my center again.

If I’ve struck a nerve, though, and you are kind of feeling the same way, I invite you to come live the curious life with me. In a nut shell, it’s just about approaching life with more of an open mind. I still believe in the power of curiosity; I just need to go back to putting that belief into practice. If you want, feel free to join me.

Never stop searching.

Never stop learning.

Never stop growing.

Stay curious.

Posted in blog, politics, Self-Help | 2 Comments

Keep, Start, Stop: My 10 New Year’s Aspirations for 2017

Ah, New Year’s Resolutions. Can’t finish the new year with them; can’t start the new year without them. My attitude toward such ambitious undertakings at the onset of a new year has grown much grimmer over time, as I’ve become decidedly less bubbly and somewhat more cynical. Nevertheless, I’ve still got a hokey self-help streak in me; I’m still a big believer in bettering myself. So, yeah, I’m giving in to the New Year’s resolutions thing again.

Except I don’t like the word “resolution.” It’s too rigid and uncompromising. These are things I want to do and will try to do, but I’m not big on the idea of being “resolved” to do them. Will that make me less likely to actually do them? Perhaps. But, judging from past experience, I (like many, I would imagine) usually start off the year 100% committed to my goals; then, throughout the year, I begin giving them up one-by-one until all I’m left with is disappointment and self-loathing. So, this year, I’ll just skip the “oh, woe is me, I’m such a failure” element of this thing and simply call my New Year’s goals by another name: aspirations.

So, what are my New Year’s aspirations for 2017? I figured I would use a format I learned from Anthony Iannarino–an acquaintance of mine who has been blogging on self-helpy things for much longer and with much more clarity than me. 5 years ago, he wrote a post called “Keep, Start, Stop” that really left an impression on me. Basically, the idea is to break your goals down into 3 categories: things you want to keep doing, things you want to start doing, and things you want to stop doing. So, that’s the format I’m going to use here…

I want to keep…

Doing Intermittent Fasting

I’ve been doing intermittent fasting since September of 2015. If you’re unfamiliar with what intermittent fasting is, I wrote a post singing its praises when I first started experimenting with it. Basically, you just stop eating for a certain period of time. The science isn’t completely solid on its benefits, but it is allegedly supposed to aid your metabolism and increase your longevity–among other things.

There are several different methods of fasting. The most popular are probably the ADF (alternative day fasting) and 16/8 methods. I started off with the former but quickly switched to and settled on the latter. In the 16/8 method, you fast for 16 hours every day and then eat the other 8. I’ve found this very easy to stick to, because all I really do is skip breakfast. I start eating each day between noon and 2pm, and stop between 8pm and 10pm. Easy peasy.

Unless some fairly convincing research surfaces suggesting intermittent fasting is terrible for me, I plan to keep doing it. I’ve gotten used to it, and it seems a fairly simple way to maintain a healthy level of weight. And, if it actually helps me live longer, that’s just icing on the cake (as long as the cake is eaten after noon, that is).

If you’re interested in giving this a try, I just discovered this really cool app that helps you keep track of when you’re starting and stopping your fast.

Sticking with the hiPFloRC Diet

So, I made up that acronym. It’s pronounced “Hip-Flork,” and it stands for “High Protein and Fiber, Low Refined Carbs.” For the most part, there isn’t a  hard and fast list and I don’t really do any calorie (or gram) counting. Basically, I just focus my diet on protein sources (mostly eggs, dairy, nuts, beans, fish, and poultry), along with fruits and vegetables. I also eat potatoes (baked or fried with Extra Virgin Olive Oil), brown rice, and oats. I deliberately avoid breaded products such as pizza, cookies, and cakes, as well as sweetened beverages. That’s more or less all of it.

I came up with this makeshift diet from reading articles on Authority Nutrition. The site publishes extensive articles citing academic research in nutrition science to back up its claims. If you are interested in developing a diet plan that has been shown to actually work through empirical analysis (as opposed to fad diets based on inspirational, anecdotal testimonials), I highly recommend using this as a resource. Here are some of my favorite pieces from the site:

Exploring Theology

As has been evident by my recent writing, I became absolutely obsessed with the subject of Christian theology in 2016. I’m still really enthralled by the subject, and I want to continue pursuing it.

In my teenage years, I became what I now identify as the typical Evangelical Christian youth–getting saved, witnessing to my friends, attending Christian rock concerts, preparing for the Rapture, debating evolution with my high school biology teacher–the whole shebang. Upon graduating high school, and for the first decade of my adult life, I was part of a fringe fundamentalist group that holds to the belief that its congregants are the only Biblical (and therefore viable) people of God. In both cases, my faith has been driven by the assumption that a good religious life primarily consists of defending a truth I’ve already discovered.

In the last year, that thesis has been turned on its head. Now, my faith is about discovering truths that are continually in need of finding. I no longer hold my religion as a gavel by which I can pronounce judgments on the world. Instead, it’s simply a path that I’ve chosen (or, in some ways, that’s chosen me) to help me make sense of the world. In short, my Christian faith has become more fluid, progressive, and non-exclusionary.

Like any great transition in life, there are many circumstances that have led to my spiritual transformation, but much of it has had to do with theology. I’ve spent time reading the texts of others who have wrestled with profound spiritual concepts related to tradition, culture, scripture, and reason. So far in my studies, these are the theologians who have had the most significant influence on my thinking:

  1. John Macquarrie. When I first read his most famous work, Principles of Christian Theology, that’s when I first started thinking there could be more to my faith. That one work has shaped my understanding of God and humanity in relation to God more than any other I’ve read. Still, I also really enjoyed Macquarrie’s Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, In Search of Humanity, and Existentialism. I’ve also listened to a series of audio lectures on the nature of Jesus over and over again–and they’ve really left and impression on me.
  2. Elizabeth A. Johnson. My favorite living theologian. The works of hers that I’ve read include Quest for the Living God, Consider Jesus, and Ask the Beasts.
  3. Paul Tillich. Gave me definitions of God (ground of being) and faith (absolute concern) that actually made sense to me. I love his short works The Courage to Be and The Dynamics of Faith, as well as his trio of Systematic Theologies.
  4. Wolfhart Pannenberg. My favorite work: What is Man? I also enjoyed Jesus, God and Man.
  5. Karl Rahner. Love his systematic theology, Foundations of Christian Faith.
  6. Jurgen Moltmann. Helped me wrestle with the nature of suffering and the meaning of Christian hope (Theology of Hope).
  7. Sally McFague. Shaped my understanding of nature in relation to God. A New Climate for Theology changed my view of the environment, but I also enjoyed The Body of God and Models of God.
  8. Gordon Kaufman. Enjoyed his In Face of Mystery and The Theological Imagination.
  9. Luke Timothy Johnson. He’s more of a historian than a theologian, but two series of audio lectures of his completely reshaped my understanding of how the Bible should be understood (The Story of the Bible) and how the church has developed over time (Early Christianity).
  10. Dorothy Soelle. I’ve never read her directly, because her work is hard to get your hands on. However, her theology on atonement (heard from John Macquarrie) reshaped my understanding of the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Learning About Data Science

2016 was a pivotal year for me in firming up my intended career path. Although I started dabbling in data science at the beginning of 2015, I really dove in headfirst this past year. In addition to brushing up on my statistics chops, I’ve managed to become an advanced user of Excel and an intermediate user of Tableau, SQL, and R programming.

In the coming year, I plan to extend my knowledge of data science to include Python, machine learning, MongoDB, and Hadoop–for starters. The amazing thing about this field is that there are an abundance of resources online to learn these skills (mostly) for free. Here are a few that I’ve discovered…

  • Edx. In addition to courses on data science, this site offers courses on a variety of subjects (history, religion, literature, physics, etc.) taught by Professors from the most prestigious universities in the world. At the end of March, I’m planning to start a course on Data Structures from the University of Adelaide. Some other courses I would like to take include: Purdue’s courses on Probability, Berkley’s course on Big Data Analysis with Apache Spark, Harvard’s course on Statistics with R, and Columbia’s course on Machine Learning–just to name a few.
  • Coursera. I used this site to learn MySQL and Tableau. Like Edx, courses are offered by Professors from some top-notch universities, but most of these tend to focus on data science and other analytical fields. Some courses I would like to take in the future include Johns Hopkins’ Data Science and Software Development in R courses, Duke’s Statistics with R courses, the University of Washington’s Machine Learning courses, the University of Colorado’s Data Warehousing courses, and the University of Michigan’s Python for Data Science courses.
  • Datacamp. This format of this platform has made it easier for me to learn than any other. So far, the courses have focused on R (and I’ve taken quite a few of them)–along with a few on Python. The courses I would still like to take include the courses on Python, ggplot2 data visualizations, Machine Learning, Time Series Analysis, and Statistical Modeling. Note: this platform requires a monthly subscription, but you can take the first chapter of any course for free.
  • Udemy. Lots of free courses (and even more paid) on data and computer science. I’ve used this platform mostly to learn databases and SQL. Some courses I would still like to data include: MongoDB Essentials, Hadoop Starter Kit, Hadoop Hive, and Java from Scratch. This site is great for getting brief introductions to subjects to which you are completely new.
  • Udacity. This site offers data sciences courses taught primarily by industry professionals from top-notch tech companies (Google, Facebook, IBM, etc.). Some courses I would like to take include MapReduce, Deep Learning, Data Visualization with node.js, Apache Storm, and Data Wrangling with MongoDB.
  • Big Data University. A site containing a few dozen short courses offered for free by IBM. Some courses I would like to take include Hadoop, Spark, Deep Learning, MapReduce, Pig, and OpenRefine.
  • MongoDB University. The NoSQL platform MongoDB offers free training on its platform. I’m going to be starting MongoDB for Developers on January 10th.
  • Edureka. This site is not free, but it does offer high level courses on a variety of applications that provide professional certification. For example, I am strongly considering taking the Data Analytics with R Certification.
  • YouTube. When all else fails, there are tons of great tutorials on YouTube. For example, I’m planning at some point to watch these tutorials on MongoDB, Hadoop, RapidMiner, and Talend.

I want to start…

Exercising

So, I’ve pretty much got my diet under control. I’ve found something that works, and I don’t think I need to change anything. As for physical activity, though, I’ve definitely come up short over the last year. For a while, I managed to do some high intensity interval training, and I even managed to start lifting weights–but that didn’t last.

I’m not exactly sure what kind of exercise I’d like to engage in for 2017. I know I want to build muscle, and I also want to improve my heart health. I’m considering joining a gym, but what I would really like to do is take up some physical activity in which I get exercise naturally. Basketball, maybe? I did start doing nature walks in the fall with my wife, and I plan to continue that in the spring. It’s a good place to start, anyway…

Writing Short Stories

So, in 2015, I somehow managed to write a novel. Actually, it was more like a novella. It was 50,000 words, and I wrote it in about 3 weeks as part of National Novel Writing Month. In 2016, I tried to write a full-length novel–I spent a few weeks writing and got to around 30,000 words before giving up. I just don’t think I have the kind of sustained focus that enables me to work on a single project for months at a time–one month seems to be my limit. So, in 2017, I think I’ll play to my strengths.

I keep telling myself to abandon the writing dream and just focus on developing my career, but I don’t think that’s possible. Ideas for stories keep popping in my head. For better or for worse, I think I’ve got the soul of a storyteller. The problem is that I lack the discipline and sustained focus to finish a longer piece.

Starting in 2017, then, I’d like to begin writing short stories–5000-7000 words in length. I found a list of publications to which I can submit them, but the real purpose is just to get the stories out of my head. I’ll probably write 4-5 a month at a time–and do 2-3 batches throughout the year. That’s what I’ll shoot for–let’s see if I can do it…

Networking with Data Scientists

Toward the end of 2016, I attended my first meetup with the “R User Group of Greater Cleveland.” This group is one of several groups in my area that focus on data science. In 2017, I’m hoping to start regularly attending events to build relationships with people in the field. So far, I’ve been trying to learn this stuff on my own. I think it could be useful to find some sparring partners…

I want to stop…

Chewing and Picking My Fingernails

Okay, this one may seem weird on a list of other relatively high-minded pursuits. And yet, this is probably the goal I am most likely to fail to accomplish. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had this compulsion to chew my fingers down to the nubs and rip off anything that remains. It’s kind of a gross habit, and it’s not very sanitary. I’d really like to kick it, but I’ve tried so many times unsuccessfully. Don’t know if I can pull it off…

Spending So Much Time on Social Media

I’m ambivalent about social media. On the one hand, I follow a great number of solid sources that are constantly bringing great stories and great research to me. On the other hand, I waste a lot of time mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds in order to cure the feeling of boredom. Furthermore, I got pretty up-in-arms on social media during this past election cycle–participating in much of the angst-ridden behavior I’ve been known to criticize in the past. I think I could use a little more discipline on this front.

Besides, I think I’m addicted. I surprise myself by how often I’ll unlock my phone, swipe over to Facebook, and open the app without even thinking twice. I can be waiting in a line for 30 seconds, and I’ll feel the tug of social media to help me fill the time. I think I would instead like to try being more present in the moment. I bore too easily with the everyday experience, and I often fail to recognize it for the gift that it is. The shiny allure of social media is in a large part to blame for this, I’m afraid.

To begin with, I think I’ll remove the Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn apps from my phone. I’ll do any social media I want to do on the computer before I leave in the morning and won’t check it again until the next day. But, what if someone needs to reach me? If it can’t wait 24 hours, there’s this amazing invention called a phone…

Taking on Too Much at Once

Over the last year, I’ve realized something about myself–I am clearly not a “multi-tasker” and yet I am continually trying to be one. The problem isn’t that I’m interested in too many things; the problem is that I try to be interested in them all at the same time.

I’ve noticed that I’m not all that great in doing a variety of things consistently over time. I work better in batches–focusing exclusively on one thing at a time before moving on to the next. For example, I’m scheduled to take a data science course between January 10th and February 28th. Rather than also trying to write short stories during that time, I’ll focus only on my data science course and then use March to write a batch of short stories.

My 10 New Year’s Aspirations

So, that’s it. Here’s a summary of what I hope to accomplish in 2017.

  1. Keep doing intermittent fasting.
  2. Keep sticking to a high protein, high fiber, and low refined carb diet.
  3. Keep exploring theology.
  4. Keep learning about data science.
  5. Start exercising.
  6. Start writing short stories.
  7. Start networking with data scientists.
  8. Stop chewing and picking my fingernails.
  9. Stop spending so much time on social media.
  10. Stop taking on too much at once.

Your turn.

Posted in blog, Data Science, Health, religion, Self-Help | Leave a comment

My Top 10 Books from 2016

2016 was not exactly a year of heavy reading for me. In all, I would say I probably read around 40 books–although I didn’t exactly keep count. Early on in the year, I was really into theology (and you can see some of that in my top 10). Throughout most of the year, though, I’ve been focused on professional development. Rather than reading, I’ve spent much of my free time taking courses on data science and computer programming. (Side note: if you’re interested in free education on a variety of subjects, check out the courses from sites such as edX and Coursera. It’s amazing what great learning resources are available for free today on the Internet).

Although I didn’t read nearly as much as I’ve read in the past, there were some gems that really jumped out for 2016. These books not only intrigued me, but they dramatically altered my view of the world in some way. To me, that’s what a good book does–it doesn’t merely entertain; it also profoundly shapes your way of thinking. That’s what these books did for me. I would highly recommend every one of them, because I think they could do the same thing for you…

10) If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power

I read this book early on in the year, and it really helped me understand the intricacies of the Muslim religion. The book is about a journalist who spends months interviewing a certain Sheikh in an attempt to understand how the Quran influences the lives of Muslims. The impression I got from the book is that adherents to Islam are largely peaceful people seeking an ascetic lifestyle to become closer to God. However, the author does touch on some of the issues in the Muslim tradition that clash with Western values. I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to get a picture of Islam beyond the stereotypes we often associate with it.

Cultural dialogue is the world’s most powerful weapon against extremism of any kind. Genuine engagement between people holding different points of view is the best hope for making this increasingly polarized planet work.

9) In a Different Key by Jon Donvan and Caren Zucker

This book is a remarkable history of the Autism Spectrum Disorder. The condition has an intriguing story, and its development has been fraught with controversy and uncertainty. More than anything, the book smashed a lot of preconceived notions about autism for me (i.e. that every Autistic person is like Rain Man). The book helped me see that people on the Autistic Spectrum (especially those with the condition formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome) aren’t weird; they just see the world differently. Unlike other mental conditions, Autism isn’t something we can treat or cure; instead, it’s something we must seek to accommodate. Anyway, I highly recommend this book for anyone who knows people with Autism or who simply love a good history.

When a society diminishes the standing of its weakest, the whole society is diminished as well.

8) Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel Migliore

As mentioned above, I read a lot of theology in 2016. My personal faith and public religious affiliation went through a dramatic shift over the last year, and I now find myself awash in theological concepts I’d never considered before. This book is a basic overview of the major theological concepts in the Christian faith: from creation to incarnation to the Holy Spirit to eschatology. The writing is straightforward and easily digestible for the lay person, but the concepts are really heavy. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has not read much theology. If you are a Christian, it is (in my view) a must read. If you are not, then the book will help you gain a broader view of the Christian faith and help you realize that not all Christians have the beliefs you might imagine them to have.

This is the spirit of Christian hope: to struggle and to take risks for justice, freedom, and peace for all people; to be zealous for the completion of God’s redemptive activity in the world; to live in the confidence that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; and to discover ever new reasons to give thanks and glory to God.

7) Room by Emma Donoghue

Just when I think I’ve lost interest in fiction, a story comes along that draws my imagination back into the world of suspended disbelief. This novel was undoubtedly one of the best I’ve ever read. The narrator is a 5-year-old boy, and we find out about everything through his eyes; it is stunningly brilliant writing. The story is rather dark: a woman kidnapped as a teenager bears the child of her captor and eventually finds a way to escape–only to struggle adapting to life outside the shed in which she had been imprisoned. To me, though, the novel was thematically existential. The idea of being trapped in a situation with no escape was felt deeply in the earlier part of the novel–and anyone can relate to this situation. If you haven’t read this book yet, I cannot recommend it more highly.

No, no, he was put into jail by mistake, I mean it was some bad police who put him there. Anyway, he prayed and prayed to get out, and you know what? An angel flew down and smashed the door open.

6) A God that Could Be Real by Nancy Ellen Abrams

I first heard of this book in a podcast I listened to. I know I said I read a lot of theology this year, and you might think that this was one of those books; it isn’t. The author is a philosopher of science and, until very recently, an ardent skeptic when it comes to religious matters. In this book, she tells the story of recent personal developments that have led her to believe in a form of higher power. What really left an impression on me was her understanding of God as an emergent phenomenon. Just like other concepts that we have collectively created (the economy, the government, the media, etc.) but that nevertheless have reality to us, God is real. The author criticizes many of the common understandings of deity that I myself have had difficulty accepting and still leave space for a God that actually exists. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the intersection of science and religion.

God is endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations across time.

5) A New Climate for Theology by Sally McFague

I’m really sorry if you’re tired of hearing about theology by this point–okay, not really. This book was the first book I’ve read on the intersection of theology and the environment and introduced me to a whole new world of literature on ecological theology (honorable mentions: Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth A. Johnson and Grounded by Diana Butler Bass). Essentially, the book argues for religiously minded people to protect the world not only as God’s creation but also as an extension of God. If God is omnipresent in the world, then destroying the world must be an affront to the God who inhabits it. The author proposes a model of God that turned my understanding of creation upside down: that the earth is the body of God. I highly recommend this book to any person of faith wrestling with how they ought to view environmental stewardship.

The divine is physical (as well as spiritual), as we–all of us–are. There is no absolute line dividing matter and spirit, body and soul, nature and humanity, or the world and God. Contemporary science tells us this, but it is also the heart of incarnational thinking. The model of the world as God’s body suggests a creation theology of praise to God and compassion for the world in contrast to Christian theologies of redemption that focus on sin and on escape from the world.

4) Homegoing by Y’a’a Gyasi

This novel left such a huge impact on me, because it helped me realized how something that seems so far away in the distant past can have dramatic ripple effects far into the future. The story begins with two half-sisters in Africa–one which is taken captive and enters into slavery and the other which is married to a slave owner. From there, the author traces the lineage of each woman in subsequent generations all the way to the present day. The writing is beautiful and the cohesiveness of the story across so many characters is a remarkable feat. I recommend this to anyone who loves good fiction, but I also recommend it to anyone struggling to understand race relations and the plight faced today by people of color. As a white man living in America, it was a real eye opener. Maybe it could be for you too…

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

3) The Meaning of the Creative Act by Nicolas Berdyaev

This book is a work of existential philosophy. Berdyaev became one of my favorite writers early in the year, because he strikes that perfect balance of being intellectually rigorous and (unlike other existentialists like Sartre and Kierkegaard) relatively easy to understand. This book covers a broad range of themes in human nature, but the concept that really revolutionized my thinking was the emphasis on the human being as a creative being. Writing from a Christian perspective, Berdyaev is aware of the focus many have on the “fallen” nature of man–that we are pitiful creatures in need of saving. But he argues that we are more than that–that we are also fundamentally creative. We aren’t just saved from our destructive tendencies; rather, we are saved to do something creative in the world.

Creativeness is not only the struggle with sin and evil–it wills another world, it continues the work of creation. The law begins the struggle against sin and evil; the redemption finishes that struggle; but man is called to create a new and hitherto unknown world through free and daring creativeness, to continue God’s creation.

2) The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

One last theology book! I read this book when I was going through a bit of a faith crisis. Specifically, I was questioning whether or not anything supernatural could actually exist. The moment we perceive anything with our senses, I reasoned, it becomes part of the natural world. Even if we see a ghost, the very act of seeing gives the object physical reality. A thing is only supernatural to the extent that we can’t grasp it because, when we do, it becomes a part of our world. Reading this book helped me think of the supernatural in a new way. Since reading it, I’ve come to believe that the supernatural (or, if you will, God) is the feeling of awe and wonder that we experience in our lives. Whew. Faith crisis resolved.

It might be objected that the mysterious is something which is and remains absolutely and invariably beyond our understanding, whereas that which merely eludes our understanding for a time but is perfectly intelligible in principle should be called, not a ‘mystery,’ but a ‘problem.’ But this is by no means an adequate account of the matter. The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other’, whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.

1) Doing Good Better by William MacAskill

This book is about philanthropy, but it offers a different perspective than anything I’ve ever read on the subject. Much that I’ve read and heard on the subject of generosity focuses on the motivations of the giver. We give, because it’s the right thing to do. It makes us feel good to feel like we’re helping others. This book, however, takes a different approach. Rather than focusing on the causes that make us feel good about ourselves, why don’t we focus on the causes that actually get results? The book reveals a variety of ways in which we can use our resources to actually make the world a better place rather than simply making us feel like we’re doing so. On a personal level, the book really helped me in reaffirming my career choice. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to make a difference in the world but doesn’t really know how. I would also recommend it to anyone who thinks they already are making a difference in the world; you might be surprised by what you discover.

We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could, mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavor robs the act of virtue. And that means we pass up opportunities to make a tremendous difference.

Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Project

So, what are my plans for 2017? Who knows what interests I’ll take up or how many books I’ll get around to reading. However, there are 24 books I’m planning to read for sure. Last year, I participated in Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge. It’s a really cool way to introduce yourself to different kinds of books. They provide a reading prompt consisting of 24 different types of books, and you choose one to fit each category.

If you’re interested in participating in the project for 2017, here’s the link to the instructions. You don’t have to pick all your books out ahead of time, but I did. Here’s the list of reading prompts and what I’m planning to read for each one in the Read Harder Challenge of 2017…

  1. Read a book about sports. My pick: On the Origins of Sports by Gary Belsky. I heard an interview with this author about the book, and it sounded interesting…
  2. Read a debut novel. My pick: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.
  3. Read a book about books. My pick: Reading Reconsidered by Doug LemovI heard an interview with this author about the book, and it sounded interesting…
  4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author. My pick: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa.
  5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative. My pick: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.
  6. Read an all-ages comic. My pick: Saga Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughn.
  7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950. My pick: The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov.
  8. Read a travel memoir. My pick: Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert.
  9. Read a book you’ve read before. My pick: Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. One of my favorite psychology books of all-time. Michael Lewis has written a new book that’s a biographical account of how the research in this book came to be, and I plan on reading that as a companion to rereading this.
  10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location. My pick: Super Boys by Brad Ricca. The creators of Superman are from Cleveland. Who knew?
  11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location. My pick: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. So, I learned that Australia is over 5,000 miles from Ohio…
  12. Read a fantasy novel. My pick: The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst.
  13. Read a nonfiction book about technology. My pick: The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly.
  14. Read a book about war. My pick: The Spoils of War by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Allistair Smith.
  15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+. My pick: We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. I think the premise of this books sounded like a really good idea…
  16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country. My pick: Go Ask Alice by Anonymous.
  17. Read a classic by an author of color. My pick: The Outsider by Richard Wright. Wright’s classic Native Son is one of my favorite novels of all-time, due to its Existentialist themes. I’ve heard that this more obscure work of his has even greater Existentialist influence, so I’m excited to dig in…
  18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead. My pick: Black Widow Vol. 1 by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. Black Widow is definitely my favorite character in the Avengers movies. I’ve never read a comic book in my life, so I figured this would be a good place to start…
  19. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey (From Daniel José Older, author of Salsa Nocturna, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, and YA novel ShadowshaperMy pick: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.
  20. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel (From Sarah MacLean, author of ten bestselling historical romance novels) My pick: Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau.
  21. Read a book published by a micropress. (From Roxane Gay, bestselling author of Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, Marvel’s World of Wakanda, and the forthcoming Hunger and Difficult WomenMy pick: Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso.
  22. Read a collection of stories by a woman. (From Celeste Ng, author Everything I Never Told You and the forthcoming Little Fires EverywhereMy pick: Get in Trouble by Kelly Link.
  23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. (From Ausma Zehanat Khan, author of the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series, including The Unquiet Dead, The Language of Secrets, and the forthcoming Among the RuinsMy pick: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. I haven’t read much poetry, but I LOVED the title of this collection.
  24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color. (From Jacqueline Koyanagi, author of sci-fi novel AscensionMy pick: Swing Time by Zadie Smith.
Posted in blog, Books and Reading | 2 Comments

Is There an End to Suffering? – An MCCC Life Study Reflection

This post is part of a series. In September 2016, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter. The discussions are part of the weekly “Life Study” hosted by the Mantua Center Christian Church. These posts offer my reflections on the ideas that were discussed during the study, as well as some things that did not get addressed due to time constraints. To read my reflections on other parts of the series, click the links below:

What is Christian Hope?

I suppose that this study on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter has been, for the most part, rather grim. The first part was on the unjust suffering of life and the existential despair that can result from it. The second part was about the suffering of Christ, and how we can make redemptive sense of such a cruel idea as the crucifixion. Even the third part, which focused on our obligations to help those who re suffering through the work of love, called attention to the injustices faced by the underprivileged in this world. So, I thought it would be fitting to end on something rather uplifting: hope.

But what does hope mean exactly within the context of Christianity? This is the question with which we opened the discussion. What is the meaning of Christian hope? And what do ideas of salvation and heaven have to do with it, if anything?

As we talked about what hope means to us as Christians, I noticed that there were answers fell into two different domains: 1) hope for this world, and 2) hope for a world beyond.

One member of the group spoke as hope being the belief that the world could become a better place. Similarly, another spoke about Christian hope meaning the realization of the kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, another member spoke about hope meaning someday being reunited with a lost loved one. Still another connected the idea of hope with the idea of resurrection in the Christian faith–that hope means that possibility of being raised again after death.

The more we talked about it, the clearer it became to me that hope is rather difficult to define within the context of the Christian faith. It has both a this-worldly dimension of the here-and-now and an otherwordly dimension of the somewhere-in-the-distant-future. In both of these views, though, it is something that both keeps us holding on and pushes us to continue moving forward.

Scriptural reflections

Here are the passages (NKJV) we read and built the remainder of the discussion around…

1 Peter 1:3-12

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen[a] you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls.

10 Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us[b] they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.

1 Peter 2:4-10

4 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture,

“Behold, I lay in Zion
A chief cornerstone, elect, precious,
And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.”[b]
7 Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient,[c]

“The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone,”[d]
8 and

“A stone of stumbling
And a rock of offense.”[e]
They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.

9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.

1 Peter 5:5-11

5 Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”[b]
6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, 7 casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.

8 Be sober, be vigilant; because[c] your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. 10 But may[d] the God of all grace, who called us[e] to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. 11 To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

How Should We Interpret the Concept of Heaven?

One of the most common conceptions of hope had to do with the idea of an “afterlife,” some sort of consolatory existence that comes after this deficient existence has ended. The scriptures, as well as the tradition of the church and popular culture, refer to this existence as “heaven.” The writer of 1 Peter uses this very image in order to encourage the persecuted Christians to whom he is writing to keep the faith and hang on until the end.

I, along with many other people of faith, have taken issue with this conception of heaven in the modern world. First, the promise of heaven has often been used as tool of oppression throughout history. The poor, mistreated, enslaved, and abused have been taught to simply accept their lot in life since they, after all, have heaven to look forward to. Additionally, there seems to be a lack of moral integrity in the idea of heaven as a “reward.” It takes the altruism out of spiritual devotion and reduces it to a transaction. We are good in this life, because we think it will make us rich in the next one.

Going into this study, these were where my thoughts were going on the idea of “heaven.” It makes life harder for the oppressed and keeps positive change from happening in the here-and-now. And it also encourages people to be good solely for selfish reasons. After I got these thoughts out, though, I shut up and let other members of the group speak–and it sort of opened my eyes a bit…

One member of the group mentioned how the African-American community throughout history has used images of heaven as a means of coping with its plight. In the black church, the possibility of heaven has often been seen as glorious in the face of a hard life on earth. Another member of the group talked about working in a poor community and, when he attended services, they always wanted to sing the same song: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” While I may think that heaven is used as a weapon of oppression, that is often not how the oppressed see it.

When this life gets bad enough, another member of the group said, the hope of another one can be the only thing that keeps you going. Upon hearing this, I realized that some people do indeed need the promise of something more beyond this life–because it is unlikely that this life will ever become tolerable for them. This is, I believe, the situation being faced by the recipients of 1 Peter. They are being persecuted, they are barely hanging on, and the writer is reminding them that they still have something to hope for–even if they don’t see it in this life.

I think that each of us is inevitably going to view heaven differently, because we each have different situations with which we are trying to deal. We long for the heaven that our time on earth leads us to desire.

The God of All Grace: Moving Toward Perfection

When I was a teenager, I participated in a study group with the church I was attending at the time. God is called by many names in the Bible, and we were provided with a list. Each of us had to pick from the list the name of God with which we most identified. I chose the “God of all grace” from 1 Peter 5:10, and I had always remembered that. Over the last year, the existential significance of this conception of God has become much clearer to me.

To me, worshipping the “God of all grace” means that I recognize life as a gift. As a human being in this world, I am graced with the gift of consciousness, freedom, and possibility. Yes, life is broiled in suffering and absurdity, but the mere potentiality of overcoming such a human predicament hints at an existential grace despite of it all. There is reality, but there is also possibility–and that possibility is grace.

Besides my fixation on the “God of all grace,” there is another little phrase in 1 Peter 5:10 that really jumps out to me: “after you have suffered a little while.” This phrase is interesting, because something very similar is said in the beginning of the letter (1 Peter 1:6). It’s almost as if the writer is bringing the argument around full circle. Yes, he seems to be saying, you are suffering now; but if you could just hang on a little bit longer, everything is going to be okay.

I don’t know what I believe about the literal nature of heaven, about the immortality of the soul, or about the afterlife, but I think it’s enough to believe that–one way or another–everything is going to turn out okay. To me, this is hope in its simplest and purest form. The possibility of overcoming suffering is grace; its realization is hope.

I believe that the world is pushing forward to something new and better–to a state of completion, perfection, and redemption. Heaven isn’t a place so much as it is a time. This, for me, is hope. I hope not only that I would be brought to a state of completion but that all of humanity and all of creation would as well. I suppose, for now, my conception of Christian hope can be summed up in the following reflection from Daniel Migliore in his introduction to Christian theology, Faith Seeking Understanding:

“This is the spirit of Christian hope: to struggle and to take risks for justice, freedom, and peace for all people; to be zealous for the completion of God’s redemptive activity for the world; to live in the confidence that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:8:38-39); and to discover ever new reasons to give thanks and glory to God.”

Posted in blog, Mantua Center Christian Church, religion | Leave a comment

How Ought We Address the Suffering of Others? – An MCCC Life Study Reflection

This post is part of a series. In September 2016, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter. The discussions are part of the weekly “Life Study” hosted by the Mantua Center Christian Church. These posts offer my reflections on the ideas that were discussed during the study, as well as some things that did not get addressed due to time constraints. To read my reflections on other parts of the series, click the links below:

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

In the first part of this thematic study of 1 Peter, we talked in a general way about suffering–the primary subject of the letter. Specifically, we sought to answer the question regarding the proper way to deal with our own suffering. 1 Peter is written to Christians in the 1st century who are being persecuted and finding themselves in oppressive situations. One question worth asking is how we share kinship with those early Christians through the suffering we encounter in our lives today…and how we can incorporate Peter’s advice in the contemporary world so that we may become better bearers of our burdens.

Coping with suffering, however, is not merely an existential ordeal turned inward. We encounter suffering in the world not just through our own experiences of hardship but also when we take notice of the hardship experienced by others. We can talk about how to deal with our own suffering, but I don’t think the conversation should end there. We must also address how we deal with suffering outside of us–the suffering we see other people undergoing in the world. The writer of 1 Peter also touches on this perspective of suffering. He uses one word repeatedly in order to reinforce to those early Christians their responsibility for looking out for each other–for tending to the suffering of each other; that word is love.

Woven throughout the letter in three different sections, Peter calls his readers to love, compassion, courtesy, and hospitality. “You aren’t the only ones who are suffering,” he seems to be saying. “Take a look around you. There is a world of suffering to which you can tend. There is a world of brokenness that you have the power to heal.” We aren’t just called to bear our own suffering; we are also called to bear the suffering of others. We are also called to love.

Scriptural reflections

Here are the passages (NKJV) we read and built the remainder of the discussion around…

1 Peter 1:22-25

22 Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit[a] in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, 23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,[b] 24 because

“All flesh is as grass,
And all the glory of man[c] as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers,
And its flower falls away,
25 But the word of the Lord endures forever.”[d]
Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.

1 Peter 3:7-12

7 Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.

8 Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous;[a] 9 not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For

“He who would love life
And see good days,
Let him refrain his tongue from evil,
And his lips from speaking deceit.
11 Let him turn away from evil and do good;
Let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
And His ears are open to their prayers;
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”[b]

1 Peter 4:7-11

7 But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers. 8 And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”[a] 9 Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. 10 As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11 If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

What is the Meaning of Love?

The obvious thing to do when discussing any subject is to first get definitions out of the way. So, as we pressed into our discussion on love, we sought to answer the question, “What is love?” What does it mean to love someone? When I asked this open question, I got a number of responses from those in the group–all of which I think add something to the definition:

      • Love is bringing out the best in the other person. Typically thought in terms of a romantic relationship but also applicable to close friendships, love can be seen as a way of enhancing the well-being of the other. We love someone when we make them a better version of themselves.
      • Love is patience and grace. One member of the group quoted a funny way of describing love. When you don’t love someone, you will be annoyed when you hear them slurping their soup; when you do love someone, they can dump soup into your lap and it wouldn’t bother you! Maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point here is that love means treating people with patience and understanding.
      • Love is putting the other person’s needs ahead of your own. In this sense, love is sacrificial. It means giving up something yourself so that another can gain. Love is altruism. It’s seeking the good of the other–even at your own expense.
      • Love is enabling the other person to be who they are. Love is liberation. It is giving someone the permission and the means to develop into the fullest version of themselves. You love someone when you help them become who they were meant to be.

These are just a few possible definitions that were offered. I’m sure that if we stayed on the subject, we could have spent the entire evening simply trying to define love. It’s a complicated word covering a broad range of human emotions, attitudes, dispositions, and behaviors. Love isn’t easy to define.

Naturally, as I was preparing material for the discussion, I had tried to find a nice, simple Biblical definition of love (like we have of “faith” in Hebrews 11). The famed 1 Corinthians 13 does offer quite a long description of love, but it seems to be conveying its many attributes rather than its fundamental meaning. Alas, no straightforward definition exists in the sacred texts. However, I did come across another famous passage about love (Luke 10:25-37) and found something particularly striking about it:

25 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”

27 So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’[h] and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”[i]

28 And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

29 But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

This, of course, is the prelude to Jesus’s famous parable of the “Good Samaritan.” The lawyer, at first, seems to know the answer to his own question. If he wants to receive “eternal life,” he must love God and love his neighbor. When he wants to “justify himself,”  he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Notice the question he doesn’t ask, though. He doesn’t ask, “what is love?” He knows what love is. The story that Jesus tells is the story of what it means to love. The definition of “love” here isn’t even up for dispute…

How Can Love Become Insincere?

One thing that struck me as I was reviewing the Petrine passages on love was the intensity with which the author describes to sort of love he expects of his readers. He doesn’t just say to love; he says to love fervently, deeply, and sincerely. In other words, the love we demonstrate must be authentic and complete–not merely “love in name only.” So, I brought this question to the group: in what ways can love be insincere?

Here’s another way of thinking about this question. Have you ever heard someone talk about something they’ve said or done out of “love” for another person but, when you look at their behavior, you think to yourself, “That isn’t love?” Well, what does that person’s supposed “love” look like? What is it about its character that makes it phony, disingenuous, or incomplete? How is such love insincere?

In our discussion of what distorted love might look like, we talked about a few different scenarios:

      • Love as condemnation. In this scenario, we “speak the truth on love.” We condemn people to hell, because we are genuinely concerned for the state of their souls. We are thinking of their eternal destiny, so we do whatever we can to point out their “sins” to them. We feel fully justified in doing so, because we think we are acting in the other’s best interests. From the outside, though, people see LGBT youth being bullied and victimized out of “concern for their souls.” When we see the pain they experience in such persecution and read the raw statistics about how they commit suicide at much higher rate than the average person, it becomes hard to reconcile their condemnation with any sense of a “sincere love.” I do not think love is preaching. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the protagonist does not show love to the injured man by assuring him that his suffering is no big deal and that, if he would just accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior, he would get to go to heaven. No, he helps the man in a real, tangible, this-worldly way. Jesus is answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” But he could equally well be answering our question: what is love?
      • Love as pity. This one is a little more tricky, I think, but there is a sense in which insincere love can be manifest in Christian service. In the study group, one person told the story of how he had once been an intern Pastor at a church. A man had come in to ask him for money. What an opportunity to help those less fortunate than me! He had thought. So, he went straight to his ATM and got the money for the man. Feeling proud of himself, he was shocked when the Senior Pastor took him aside and told him that he shouldn’t have done it. Why? What was so wrong about helping someone in need? By giving the man the money, he had unwittingly established a power structure in the relationship. He had set himself up as the benefactor and had placed the man beneath him in a position of dependency. We love someone by making them our equal; not by making them our mission. Even when our intentions are good, our love can be insincere.

In both of these versions of love, I think, there is a selfish character. To love someone means to mold them into the person you think they should be. You think you have a greater understanding than they do about how God will judge them, so you try to shame them into seeing religious life the way you do. Or, in the second scenario, you have no qualms about keeping them dependent on you because you love the feeling of being in the position of power.

Insincere love is love that possesses, controls, and exploits. Sincere love is love that liberates, empowers, and inspires. In our definitions of love mentioned above, I think the last one (at least for me) describes a sincere and fervent love most perfectly. Love is liberation. It’s letting go of control and freeing the other person to become the best version of themselves they can be. Here’s how Anglican Theologian John Macqurrie describes it in his Principles of Christian Theology:

Love is letting-be, not of course in the sense of standing off from someone or something, but in the positive and active sense of enabling-to-be. When we talk of ‘letting-be,’ we are to understand both parts of this hyphenated expression in a strong sense–‘letting’ as ’empowering,’ and ‘be’ as enjoying the maximal range of being that is open to the particular being concerned.

Love and the Oppressed

In 1 Peter 4:10, the author writes, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Typically, when I read passages such as these about “gifts,” we think in terms of talents or natural aptitude. I think this reading is perfectly fine and, most likely, what is primarily meant by the “gifts” we are graced with. However, in viewing these passages through the lens of love in the face of suffering, this idea took on a whole new meaning for me. Could it be that our “gifts” not only refer to our talents, but also to our privilege?

Most of us are privileged in some way. By this, I mean that we’ve inherited certain advantages, through no effort of our own, that allow us an easier time in life than others who aren’t so fortunate. In society today, we hear phrases such as “white privilege,” “mansplaining,” and “first world problems.” All of these terms function as cultural criticisms of the advantages that some groups have over others. Rich people have an advantage over poor people. Intelligent people have an advantage over people who are mentally disabled. We can also talk of straight privilege, Christian privilege, education privilege, etc. The list goes on and on.

Some of us are “gifted” with privilege while some of us are deprived. I think Peter is encouraging his readers to use what they have been blessed with to serve those who are lacking the blessing. The grace–the privilege we’ve inherited–isn’t ours; we are mere stewards of it. I’m not, of course, saying that there is anything inherently better or objectively more valuable in being white or male or heterosexual. But I am saying that, given the moral brokenness of the world in which we live, some groups do receive benefits to the detriment of others. What this passage can teach us who have inherited those benefits is that we should use our privilege to break down those barriers and serve the underprivileged, rather than exploiting them.

Although I’m aware of the exegetical nuance involved in interpreting the passage, I think this kind of privilege-consciousness is perhaps what the writer of 1 Peter has in mind when he calls husbands to treat their wives with honor as “the weaker vessels.” I tend to reject interpretations of this phrase that see women as morally inferior, as well as those who interpret the phrase simplistically to mean a lack of physical strength. Rather, I think the author may be calling attention to the structural inequity–that wives at the time did not have the same level of power as husbands and were therefore more susceptible to being take advantage of.

I think the same thing is happening with Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 19. Often, Jesus’s prohibition of divorce is used as a justification for imprisoning women in abusive relationships. It seems to me that the intention of Jesus’s teaching at the time was precisely the opposite. In that culture, as in many cultures today, a divorced woman was considered powerless and even shameful. Men had that advantage over women, that they could possess them and discard them on a whim. The person questioning Jesus on the subject was looking for confirmation that this type of behavior was morally acceptable. He didn’t get it. Jesus was essentially saying that the privileged have a moral responsibility to look out for the disadvantaged.

Perhaps in our American society today, the concept of privilege is expressed most vividly in the Black Lives Matter movement. As I write this, protests have erupted in Charlotte following the police shooting of yet another unarmed black man. I woke up this morning to a white friend in Charlotte marking himself “safe” on Facebook. This feature allows people to alert friends and family that they are “safe” during catastrophes and tumultuous events. While I understand the fear, I was struck by the “white privilege” manifest in this notification. There are many people of color that don’t have luxury of feeling safe in their everyday lives. If there were a feature that enabled them to mark themselves safe from police shootings, it would seem that they would never get to use it.

I recently read God of the Oppressed by African American theologian James Come, and there was a passage that struck me as quite poignant for this discussion. It sort of turned the way I think about the “Christian mission” on its head, and I felt that I needed to bring it up during the conversation. Citing Luke 6:20, where Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” Come writes:

The poor are the oppressed and the afflicted, those who cannot defend themselves against the powerful. They are the least and the last, the hungry and the thirsty, the unclothed and the strangers, the sick and the captives. It is for these little ones that the gospel is preached and from whom liberation has come in the words and deeds of Jesus.

It is important to point out that Jesus does not promise to include the poor in the Kingdom along with all the others who may be rich and learned. His promise is that the Kingdom belongs to the poor alone…Here the gospel, by the very definition of its liberating character, excludes those who stand outside the social existence of the poor.

How different this perspective is from what we’re used to! Usually, those of us in Western, middle class Christianity see ourselves as the noble heroes mercifully reaching out to the lost outside our sturdy, insulated wells. The kingdom is ours, and we’re just being nice enough to share it. This, however, is not the gospel of Jesus; in fact, it’s the complete opposite. If you look at Jesus’s life, work, and teaching, you see that he was all about the poor and disadvantaged. The oppressed were the church of Jesus–the rich and the advantaged were the ones who stood outside.

Putting this in today’s context, I think of the African American community. Of course, the black church has been extremely influential on communities of color. Yet, in the white Evangelical version of Christianity in which I was raised, people of color are often viewed as outsiders that we accept into kingdom on the condition that they become more like us. I also think of the LGBT community. They are outside of the church and, with a little “reconditioning,” we might consider letting them in. This list can extend to many other disadvantaged minorities–people with psychiatric problems, refugees, people of different religious traditions. The list goes on and on.

These people are the church. The kingdom belongs to them. We the privileged do not have rights to the kingdom; rather, we stole it from the oppressed to whom Jesus had given it. As we recognize this profound truth, we find ourselves in the position we’ve tried to place these outsiders. We are standing outside the kingdom, pounding on the door and pleading for the rightful heirs to let us in. Maybe if we get to work to right all the wrongs that have created the systemic injustices leading to so much suffering in their lives, they will be gracious enough to open the door and let us back into the church where Jesus really lives.

There is a lot of talk about reconciliation in contemporary Christianity, and I certainly think it is a noble goal–the outcome of a sincere love. Nevertheless, I reject the notion that we all have an equal responsibility toward bringing about reconciliation. For those of us who have been so privileged for so long, there is much more work to do. We cannot achieve reconciliation with the people we’ve exploited until we stop demanding their forgiveness and start begging for it. Reconciliation comes when we the privileged begin to see ourselves as guests in the kingdom of the oppressed.

God is Love

A little while ago, I found myself searching the scriptures in an attempt to refine my doctrine of God. If love is hard to define, try defining God! I found many scriptures attesting to God’s attributes: God is merciful, God is mighty, God is righteous, etc. But there is little that describes God’s fundamental identity. There is one passage, however, that does give a definition of God. You may know it. In John 4:8, the writer states, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

The passages does not state that God is loving, or that he has love. It says that God is love. This sort of definitive language is seldom used to describe God. Nowhere do we read, “God is mercy,” “God is might,” or “God is righteousness.” But we do read that “God is love.” Maybe that’s because love is so integral to the character of God that the two cannot be distinguished from one another. God is love…and love is God.

In what way is God defined by love? Well, recall our definition of love as empowerment. If loving one another means enabling one another to become fuller versions of ourselves, God can be said to be the cosmic manifestation of this liberation.

God is love in that he gives life. He sets us free to be the kind of people we were created to be. This is the kind of love Jesus conveyed in his healing and restoration. “It is for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1), and “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God is love not in that he rescues us from danger but in that he moves us toward the fullness of life (John 10:10). In the words of philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev:

Salvation from sin, from perdition, is not the final purpose of religious life: salvation is always from something and life should be for something. Many things unnecessary for salvation are needed for the very purpose for which salvation is necessary–for the creative upsurge of being. Man’s chief end is not to be saved but to mount up, creatively.

God is love.

May we as people of God also be people of love. If we are not actively engaged in the work of love, then we have no business calling ourselves representatives of the Divine. Suffering is not merely a burden that we bear; it’s also a problem that we seek to solve. It’s a call to action.

If suffering is the question, then love is the answer.

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What Is the Meaning of Jesus’s Suffering? – An MCCC Life Study Reflection

This post is part of a series. In September 2016, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter. The discussions are part of the weekly “Life Study” hosted by the Mantua Center Christian Church. These posts offer my reflections on the ideas that were discussed during the study, as well as some things that did not get addressed due to time constraints. To read my reflections on other parts of the series, click the links below:

Why Did Jesus Die?

In the second part of this series on human suffering, we moved on to discussing the suffering of Christ described in 1 Peter. Namely, we sought to answer the question: what does Jesus’s suffering mean for us today? So, I opened with the obvious question: why was Jesus crucified?

One member of the group responded essentially by saying that there was no reason. Jesus died unjustly, at the hands of authorities who saw his work as stirring up trouble and inciting rebellion. Of course, we see clearly in the Gospels how the religious leaders in his community are continually conspiring to put him to death, and it is a nearly universally agreed upon fact that he was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” So, in a very straightforward sense, the answer to why Jesus died is simple: people killed him.

But, alas, that’s not the end of the story. It seems to me that when people ask “why did Jesus die?” they aren’t asking a historical question; they’re asking a theological question. They want to know what the divine purpose was behind his death. In a way, they are asking the same question the first followers of Jesus were asking. Those who had put their faith in Jesus, upon his crucifixion, found themselves asking, “How could Jesus have died?” Today, we ask a similar question: why do we put our faith in a seemingly failed Messiah?

I grew up with a very specific theological answer to the question of why Jesus died: he died to take my place. Sure, I knew of the historical nature of Jesus’s death–his betrayal, his trial, and his crucifixion–but I was raised to believe that all of these things were beside the point. The important thing wasn’t how Jesus’s death came about but, rather, why it had to come about. I was a sinner condemned to death, and God sent his son into the world to die in my place so that I didn’t have to be punished for my guilt.

Growing up in the American Evangelical church, I never questioned this understanding of Jesus’s death. I found it redemptive and comforting. I always appreciated the courtroom drama that played out in my mind. I would appear before the judge, prepared to be sentenced to death for my crimes. Then, much to my delight, Jesus would step in and take the punishment for me so that I could go free. It made perfect sense and, to many Christians today, it still does…

It wasn’t until just the last few months that I began to realize the problems with understanding Jesus’s death in this way. “Substitutionary atonement,” the notion that Jesus died to vicariously pay the price for our sins, creates issues that stand at odds with other generally accepted tenets of the Christian faith. Throughout the discussion, we spent much our time discussing these issues…

5 Problems with Substitutionary Atonement

      1. Nullifies the life of Christ. It is true that the earliest writings of the New Testament mention very little about the life of Christ. All of Paul’s writings focus heavily on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Even the Gospels themselves devote a disproportionate amount of time to the last week of Jesus’s life. Nevertheless, to embrace exclusively a theology of substitutionary atonement is to render insignificant the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus. We don’t need the Golden Rule or the parables. We don’t need the casting out of demons or the healing of the sick. All we need is the cross. If this is the case, why could Christ not have merely become incarnate just in time for that crucial, final week?
      2. Paints a violent and unjust image of God. I grew up with the understanding that God embodies the ultimate balance between love and justice. He needed payment for our offenses because of his ultimate justice; he sent Jesus to die in our place because of his ultimate love. The more I think about it, though, the less sense this makes to me. In a world full of evil, I understand the need for a God of justice. Yet, I fail to see how punishing Jesus for the sins of others accomplishes that justice. If a room full of kids is misbehaving and there is one lone child who is being perfectly obedient, how is it justice to take away that child’s recess and allow all of the other children to get away with it? How is it justice to kill the innocent in order to allow the guilty to go free?
      3. Reveals a tainted view of humanity. Not only does substitutionary atonement paint an incomplete picture of Christ and a somewhat sadistic picture of God, but it also creates an unfair picture of humanity. To be sure, there are some human beings that have committed atrocities. Yet, I cannot agree with the notion that people are purely evil, totally depraved, and absolutely helpless. The idea that those of us who have committed genocide and those of us who have told white lies to make people feel better are guilty to the same degree seems to me to be preposterous. If all of us are destined for the same punishment and are forgiven our debts by the same payment, then it would seem that all of us are guilty of the same sin. I agree wholeheartedly that we’re all sinners, but I find the idea that we all deserve the death penalty for our sins to be rather difficult. We are, after all, created in the image of God.
      4. Negates the resurrection. If it can be said that we have indeed accumulated such a massive debt with God that we have no means of ever paying it back, then I guess we do need someone to step in and pay our debts for us. This, of course, is what Jesus does on the cross. He completes a transaction that “buys us back” into God’s good graces. Spiritually, Jesus is rich and we are poor. So, he pays God what we owe Him, and our debts are forgiven. There’s only one problem–Jesus is resurrected! The implication, then, is that God gives him his money back. If we owe God, Jesus pays God, and God returns the money, how are our debts still forgiven? And, yet, Paul says, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17) Jesus’s death alone, then, is not what takes away our sins…
      5. Removes human responsibility. One final criticism that may be made of substitutionary atonement is that it leads to the temptation of complacency on our behalf. If Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is a “once for all” payment forgiving all sins for all times, what purpose is there to living righteously? If we play no responsibility in our own salvation, we are more like sheep than human beings. John Macquarrie writes, “Rational, moral human beings cannot be saved like sheep. Some response, some co-operation or synergism is needed, otherwise there is only a quasi-magical manipulation on a subpersonal level…The Christian must consciously appropriate the work of Christ on his or her behalf, and take up the cross” (Jesus Christ in Modern Thought).

I’ve been particularly hard on this concept of atonement because I think it’s overemphasized. I don’t think it can be said to be completely false. The death of Jesus is one of those mysteries of the Christian faith that cannot be given a simple explanation. I just think that’s precisely what people try to do with the penal substitution idea of atonement. The truth is that Christ’s death is more nuanced than that. There are other ways of understanding Christ’s death, and one of these is the understanding put forth by the author of 1 Peter…

Scriptural Reflections

Here are the passages (NKJV) we read and built the remainder of the discussion around…

1 Peter 2:20-25

20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us,[f] leaving us[g] an example, that you should follow His steps:

22 “Who committed no sin,
Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; [h]

23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer[i] of your souls.

1 Peter 3:18-4:2

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us[e] to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited[f] in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

Therefore, since Christ suffered for us[a] in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.

Models of Atonement

There are various ways of understanding why Jesus died. Each has benefits and problems, and each has its support within Scripture. For the remainder of the evening, we reflected on some popular models of atonement and how they compare with the text in question. What kind of atonement does the author of 1 Peter have in mind?

Satisfaction and Penal Substitution

In the 11th Century, Anselm of Canterbury officially formulated the satisfaction theory of atonement. In this model, God is an offended party and we are the offenders. God needs to be satisfied for the offenses, and Jesus’s death brings about that satisfaction. Defenders of this position will argue that it is not the same thing as penal substitution, which says that Christ is being punished for our offenses. To me, however, the nuance seems hardly distinguishable and only depends on the extremity of the metaphor you want to use.

I’ve already spent a great deal of time discussing the difficulties of this model, but it does have some benefits. First, there seems to be vast support in Scripture. The notion of Jesus becoming a sacrifice for our sins is all over the New Testament. That kind of language is abundant, and I don’t think it can be entirely dismissed. Moreover, the idea of Jesus becoming a substitute for us emphasizes our need for a savior. It would take a great amount of hubris for us to claim that we can entirely save ourselves. Are we worthless? No, I don’t think so. But we aren’t perfect either. We do need grace.

Christus Victor

The Christus Victor view of atonement was most clearly articulated by Gustaf Aulen in the 20th Century, but it is understood as the “classic” view of atonement. That is, it is widely thought that the earliest Christians saw Jesus’s death primarily in this way. In this model, a ransom is paid not to God but to Satan. Humanity, in its sin, is held captive by the forces of evil and Jesus buys humanity back from those forces through his death on the cross. What Satan doesn’t know is that it’s a trick, and God raises Jesus from the dead–winning humanity back and conquering the forces of evil for all time.

The benefit of this view is that it doesn’t put God at odds with humanity. In this view, God longs for humanity and Satan stands in the way. This view can also find great support in scripture, from the interaction of Jesus with demons to the “victory” language used so frequently by Paul. There are a few problems with this view, though. First, it gives Satan a sort of God-like power–as if he is a force to be reckoned with. Secondly, it is highly mythological in its outlook. Nevertheless, evil can be understood on more of a symbolic basis and this helps lends the theory a little more credibility.

Moral Influence

The final theory we discussed (though certainly not the final theory that can offer explanation) is the moral influence theory of atonement. This view was first formally articulated in the 11th Century by Peter Abelard in response to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. In this view, the death of Jesus is understood to be the result of a model life. It is redemptive in that it shows us an example of how to live and, if it comes to it, how to die. Jesus saves us by showing us the way to save ourselves.

This view, in my mind, is not without problems. First, it hardly seems worthy of inspiring the creation of an entire religion. Do we not have many examples to whom we can look to understand how to live a good life? What makes Jesus so special? Secondly, many argue that this is the latest understanding of the atonement–and that it doesn’t have nearly as much support from Scripture as do the other theories mentioned.

Those criticisms notwithstanding, I think moral influence is precisely the primary understanding that the author of 1 Peter has of Jesus’s suffering and death. Why? Because it is mentioned in the light of the suffering that Christians are undergoing. Jesus suffered for his goodness and faithfulness, Peter seems to be saying, so we should expect the same sort of thing. “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.”

Personally, I find this last view of atonement to be the most compelling. It is an empowering understanding of the death of Jesus; it gives us something to do. German theologian Dorothee Soelle, in her book Christ the Representative, describes Jesus as a “representative” rather than a “substitute.” He doesn’t merely take our place, so that we are free to go about our business. Rather, he steps in so as to blaze a trail for us to follow. He doesn’t merely travel a road for us; instead, he shows us the way so that we can take that road too.

There is a scene in the Superman film Man of Steel in which Clark Kent is attempting to discover his capabilities under the guidance of his biological father, Jor-El. As he begins testing his limits, Jor-El narrates words of encouragement that I imagine God might have spoken to Jesus:

You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

In the moral influence model of atonement, Jesus is our Superman–not in the sense that he uses his superpowers to save us helpless human beings, but rather in the sense that he gives us a perfect example to which we can aspire. Jesus, in this view, represents the possibility of what humanity can become. He was, after all, a human being–wasn’t he?

Is There a Unifying Theory of Atonement?

The “unifying theory of everything,” an explanatory concept that can cover everything in the cosmos, is the Holy Grail of modern physics. But physics isn’t alone in seeking simple explanations. We seem to crave simple heuristics in every context that allow us to understand the world in a more cohesive fashion. We do the same thing we our faith–and our understanding of Jesus’s death is certainly no exception. So, is there a unifying theory of atonement?

If there is, I’m sorry to say that you aren’t going to read about it here. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, as I am with many in the Christian faith. I think that’s just kind of the nature of the beast. As mentioned, though, I do find the moral influence understanding much easier to integrate into my life. That being said, I cannot in good conscience ignore all the sacrificial language of the scriptures or the influence it has had on the historic understanding of Christ’s work in the world.

It’s difficult, though, to hold in tension this sacrificial language with all the exemplary language of the scriptures. To me, they seem to be at odds with one another. How can I “present myself as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) if the whole point of Jesus’s death is that he was sacrificed so that I don’t have to be? How can I “take up my cross” (Mark 8:34) if the whole point of Jesus taking up his cross was so that I didn’t have to take up a cross?

The wrestling continues.

However we understand the death of Jesus, I think there is one idea that must be maintained: Jesus’s death must have been voluntary. I’m not comfortable with the idea that God sent Jesus into the world as part of a pre-ordained plan that Jesus had no choice but to carry out, although I know there is much scriptural language to support this as well. Jesus’s death can only be redemptive in any theory of atonement if he gave up his life willingly for others. I can’t accept any understanding that explains the death of Christ as God killing Jesus. Jesus is our savior, however we understand that to mean, because he chooses to be.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, from their essay “For God So Loved the World?” However we understand the death of Christ, I think there’s something significant in his moment of crisis in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, he makes a choice–a choice to continue along a path of goodness and faithfulness no matter the cost. And that, I think, is the way that the author of 1 Peter would say that he is the perfect example for us…

Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat…Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.”

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