Saturday, April 16, 2016

Friends

Having and making friends is risky business.  We pride ourselves on being self-sufficient, do-it-yourself, proud people.  Unfortunately (it would seem) for such people friendship is an affront to all of these qualities in one way or another.  Our pride is what, like the devil himself, separates us form all that is really good.  It separates us from God and friend and bars us from one of the true pleasures in life.

I sometimes find myself jealous when I hear of people who have been friends all of their lives into advanced adulthood.  It doesn't seem to happen often in our society where everything is so mobile, cheap, throw-away and recyclable.  Friendship always comes across as a means to an end and easily dismissed when the need is gone.  But why should this surprise us?  Friendship is work and dangerous work at that.

Another unfortunate aspect of our culture (I speak here specifically of Americans) is that for men deep friendships have been denied for so long because to do so opened one's self to the accusation of being a homosexual. Do not be fooled into thinking this is something old and that we moderns are any better with our philosophy of tolerance and moral freedom. People today make the same mistake people did fifty years ago.  For example, what might be the typical response to the following poem by Israel's King David following the death of his friend Johnathan?

Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
     I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
     your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.  (2 Sam 1:25-26)

For our grandparents they might have said or thought something derogatory about these two men.  Perhaps calling the "fags" or pansies. Today they might point to this as proof that David had homosexual relations with Jonathan proving that such relationships are godly(!).  But both these mindsets in actuality obscure the whole point of the passage and destroy any chance of something beautiful and good.  That is, there is such a thing as a friendship between two men that is loving, caring, fulfilling and deeply affectionate while at the same time having absolutely nothing to do with sex. Such relationships were sometimes difficult in the past because most men did not want to be seen as gay.  Such relationships today have remained difficult for the exact same reason.  Even among men who may have nothing against gay men in general they would rather not be in a relationship that continually is assumed to be homosexual when in fact it is not.  I suspect this is exactly what many women have struggled with when having a purely platonic relationship with a man; a relationship everyone assumed must be more than a friendship when it was not. I'm not saying men cannot push past these social prejudices, but for many men the risk is seen as not being worth the effort.  We are quite wrong in this assessment, but that is just the way it is.  And as a result we miss out on something truly wonderful.

There are many other reasons men go a lifetime with no male relationships deeper than that found among coworkers or the neighbor you ask to borrow a ladder from once in a while.  Laziness, fear of rejection, past experiences, lack of knowledge, etc.  And my point of this post is not to address all of these or even give advice on how to overcome them.  Rather my point in posting this is to say these friendships are, most of the time (I won't say all of the time), well worth the effort and will yield a wonderful harvest if we but provide a little seed and cultivation.  Yes, it is work, but work well worth the rewards.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Theological Agnosticism

Theological and Doctrinal Agnosticism

While attending an Orthodox church, after the liturgy was through and people were preparing lunch, my wife and I got to talking to one of the priests.  During the discussion he said something I’ve heard before but never cease to find a bit shocking.  He said that although there are many christian beliefs out there the Orthodox Church is the true church. He was saying that of all the churches with their collections of doctrines, beliefs and liturgies, the Orthodox Church got it right.  Shocking, yes?

I’m not going to examine the veracity of that claim here but instead want to talk about the appropriateness of making such a claim in the first place.  In our culture making absolute truth claims is frowned upon.  This isn’t always true of course.  If you step out in front of a fast moving car, arguing about truth claims and relativism go right out the door…or under the wheels in this case.  But when we discuss ethics, philosophy and especially religion relativism is the rule and any sort of objective truth claims are quietly dismissed if not boo’d outright.  Unfortunately this tendency has seeped into the church.  We are loathed to admit it but what we have come to expect when it comes to truth claims concerning doctrine specifically and theological claims in general is a kind of theological agnosticism.  We expect people to end each seemingly objective truth claim with a formulation that goes something like, “But that is just me. I could be wrong”.

["Agnosticism" may seem like the wrong word as the person making the claim will insist, at least in their own mind, that they are right.  But here I am using the word qualitatively to refer to appearances and how we are expected to behave in society. Although you are allowed today to have your beliefs, speaking them out loud with any thing resembling conviction when it comes to theological or even moral issues is not encouraged and, in some cases, punished with legal action. So if we at least indicate that we are unsure we are less likely to get ourselves in trouble. Later it will become more clear why this word is appropriate for this phenomenon. ]

Although I would like to say bible-believing churches have a category of theological truth claims they will refuse to be agnostic on, in fact that is becoming less the case these days. Most will not compromise on things like murder, adultery, stealing, etc., even if they will compromise on what these things actually mean in opposition to what they meant.  That said, the number of things of which they will accept theological agnosticism grows with each passing day.  So it shouldn’t be  surprising that in this context that eyebrows go up when someone claims categorically to be right concerning a truth claim or even, in the case of Orthodoxy, an entire category of truth claims.

There are a number of reasons why such claims make us uncomfortable. In the first place, who likes being told they are wrong?  We don’t mind it, or at least tolerate it, when someone tells us we are wrong concerning some facts of science or health such as when the doctor tells us our diet is killing us or we discipline our children for trying to touch a hot stove.  But our religion is a whole other mater.  Telling someone they are wrong, even if we do it by telling them we are right, comes off many times sounding rude.  Why?  Besides the fact that we've become a society of soft-skinned, infantile, offense prone, victimized, drama addicted, self-obsessed hedonists (to put it plainly),  I believe a cause of this is the underlying conviction that we can never really know the truth concerning theological matters (which is the proper definition of agnosticism).  Which is to say certain basics of the Christian faith are, a priori, true but anything beyond the basics is questionable at best.  Of course what are considered the basics is a matter of opinion, but in general this holds true.

However, I would argue that if God is real, and we are able to conclusively claim that the existence of God is true, existing in three persons and that he really did speak to us through the Scriptures, then we should be able to make certain truth claims. In fact, I believe me must.  Additionally, if we are able to make these truth claims then, by extension, opposing or antithetical truth claims are, in point of fact, false.

In short, a claim that “The Orthodox Church is right” means that others are wrong.  Such a claim is admirable in one sense, but it is really the lack of agnostic formulation tacked onto the end we’ve become so accustomed to hearing that really makes us squeamish.  If only the priest had shown some social etiquette by adding, “But we could be wrong”, we would be quite okay with the claim.  Instead he comes off sounding prideful.  Unless, of course, he is actually right.  Then we have another problem to deal with.  I'll talk about this along with the problem of  sources of authority for our claims in future posts.

As a side note, after the priest had made the original claim he did add, "Orthodoxy is the right church given to the wrong people."