We Have To Do This Work

8 March 2019

There was an interesting little controversy last month over on Theopolis Blog, and now that I’m caught up on reading the whole thing (which took a little while), I’d like to offer some color commentary from out here in the cheap seats.

It starts with a forum called “Theopolis Conversations,” in which an author makes a proposal, four other authors respond to it, and finally the initial author finishes with a rejoinder to his four respondents. In this case, the topic is “Paths to Human Maturity.” The initial article by David Field (which is looong!) also has links to the follow-up responses, except for a surrejoinder Doug Wilson posted on his own blog after the discussion was over. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing; it’s worth your time. But there’s a particular aspect to the kerfluffle that I’d like to comment on, and in order for my comments to make sense, I’m going to summarize the initial proposal, below.

In a nutshell, Field proposed a project, thus:

Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.

Field then posed the situation of a pastor named Ira, “a sincere and spiritually mature man” who “meets the requirements for elders and bears the fruit of the Spirit.” Ira has carried a great deal of repressed anger since childhood, and although of course he is not conscious of it, his anger “does come out in various ways ‘above the surface’, i.e. in conscious, visible life. There are moments when there’s a [hint] that there is something lurking underneath, but Ira does not pay them any serious or sustained attention.”

Ira, though wholly sincere and genuinely godly, is not one to slow down, attend to the surface signs of unconscious passions, and connect with the associated emotions. He certainly has quiet times but in these his mind is busy – with intercessory prayer, memorising Scripture, and theological reflection. There is not time for extended, unhurried, radically honest, and exploratory conversation with another (therapist, counsellor, friend) and in any case, this would feel self-indulgent.

Moreover, drawing from contemplative traditions that might help Ira to notice what is happening in him seems “to represent a departure from the Puritan spirituality he so cherishes and therefore…to represent also a lack of trust in Scriptural ways of maturation.”

Therefore, Ira soldiers on,

And, in his case, the repressed anger manifests in his consciousness as a critical or reforming spirit which he identifies as the desire that things should be ‘right’….[H]e may control the conscious expression of this spirit and desire which can take the form of resentment at bearing responsibility, at an endeavour to control, at an obsession with correct doctrine or social conduct, as shame at the public sins or shortcomings of family members and so on….[H]e doesn’t realise…that underlying several of these various emerging ‘pressure-points’ is the one unresolved, un-named, unconscious passion of anger.)

Ira would like, of course, to be free of these besetting temptations against which he struggles. Field suggests that the only path from where Ira is to where Ira wants to be goes through “radical honesty with God,” which will require a kind of stillness and attention that Ira has not heretofore cultivated. Field further proposes that the Desert Fathers have something to offer Ira in such a season, as do the observations of the world gathered together by Zen Buddhism and depth psychology.

Field is pointedly not suggesting that Ira abandon his Christian faith. “The proposal is that we should investigate these pathways [the Desert Fathers, Zen, and depth psychology], not that we should adopt them.” [emphasis added] Why would we look into these traditions in particular? “The address to the self and associated practices which are found in these movements…are impactful and…have interesting connections with key biblical themes.” He then goes on at some length (which I’ll let you read yourself), discussing ways in which these three traditions intersect with biblical themes and might be worth investigating.

Peter Leithart, Uri Brito, and Alistair Roberts all responded with some measure of endorsement, but also varying degrees of caution. Their responses are well worth reading, and fairly brief. (As a massage therapist who works with essential oils, I particularly liked Leithart’s jag on the biblical ramifications of aromatherapy.)

What interests me here is the fourth response, from Doug Wilson, in which he (by his own later admission) “pulled the fire alarm.” In an article titled “A Crisis, not a Conversation,” Wilson rebukes the principals for even starting the conversation, and does so on asbestos paper with napalm ink. Wilson is at his fightin’ fundie finest here, quoting the expected passages about philosophy and vain deceit and banging the drum for the sufficiency of Scripture. He voices a number of valid concerns, most of which Fields ably addresses in his rejoinder. (I’ll probably have something to say on that subject later, because Wilson’s argument here is weak in ways he doesn’t realize. He argues in ways common to, say, the NANC/ACBC/BCF group, who have made “integration” a theological swear word–but he’s publicly committed to integration. Lotta tension there.)

Wilson goes more than a little over the top in his closing recommendations that Theopolis’ financial supporters might want to reconsider their giving, and threatening to do the closest thing his polity allows to calling for church discipline for the folks that started this thing, but that’s also another matter for another time. The first thing I want to comment upon here is what he doesn’t say.

Because here’s the thing: Ira, the fictional pastor with the repressed anger problem? Not so fictional. He’s more like a cliche. I’ve known a dozen of him, at least. These guys are spiritually mature (to hear the community tell it, anyhow), doctrinally sharp, honest in their business dealings–salt of the earth, right?

Yeah, about that..multiple times I’ve seen Ira’s unacknowledged wrath tank a whole ministry when it finally found its way to the surface. (And a another one where the underlying issue was vainglory, rather than anger.) I’ve been treated to the spectacle of warring Iras in the same ministry–a lot of people (me included) got drowned in that particular pissing match. Twice, I’ve had different sets of Iras blow up my whole life. Stats on pastoral failure and burnout tell the same sad tale. Various Iras, with their unaddressed sins and consequent inability to get along with one another for Jesus’ sake, are shambling through the evangelical church, leaving bodies and burning wreckage in their wake, and nothing could be plainer than that standard-issue evangelical piety is not addressing the problem.

Field is proposing an answer. Wilson doesn’t like Field’s answer. I like the way Field addresses it better than the way Wilson doesn’t. When the problem is real, which it is, in spades, having no answer is often as bad as having a poor answer. You can’t make course corrections in a parked car, and at least the guy with the poor answer is moving….

…which leads to my second point on all this: Field’s answer isn’t a poor answer. We have to do this work. We have to do it because our parishioners are not all as clueless as Ira. Some of them know something’s wrong, and they have figured out that they aren’t getting the answers they need at church. They may or may not encounter the Desert Fathers, but depth psychology has permeated our culture, and Zen mindfulness and meditation practices are not far behind. Our parishioners are searching for answers, and they are encountering this stuff. They work alongside people who are trying meditation and getting benefit from it, who are seeing Jungian shrinks and sometimes growing as a result, because common grace works. Think they won’t dabble? Bah. Of course they will. So will Wilson’s–they just won’t tell him, and what a loss that will be, both for him and for them!

Is there a straightforwardly biblical answer for these folks that makes a foray into other traditions unnecessary? If so, then let’s flesh it out and offer it to the church. Do we need some response to these other traditions anyhow, since our people are encountering them? Obviously. Would we rather have something wise to offer them in this area of common grace, or just leave them to their own devices? For a shepherd, that’s no question at all.

And anyhow, we are called to retake the territory; we play offense. To the extent that there’s anything there of value, it belongs to Christ, and we are commissioned to return it to its proper service to Him. Field has thrown down the challenge; what are we waiting for?


Martial Arts and the Christian

1 March 2019

A friend wrote me recently, passing on some questions he’d been asked about Christian participation in martial arts. Of course I’ve addressed these questions many times over the years, and his email ended up sparking an essay. So–lightly edited–here it is.

One of the first lessons I learned about speaking on Christian participation in martial arts training is that context matters. In the usual settings where the subject comes up for me, my principal concern is explaining my own practice—which is quite a different thing from addressing whatever might happen in the storefront dojo nearest you.

So I have two basic things to say: On the one hand, these things can be done well, and to the glory of Christ. On the other hand, they often are not, pagans are plentiful, and an awful lot depends on the teacher. Discerning whether a particular school, instructor, or class is a good choice for a particular student can be a tricky business, since it depends not only on the instructor but also on the maturity and needs of the student. But we are called to have our senses exercised to discern good from evil, so if it’s going to be difficult, we’d better gird up our loins and get to it. God is light; He’ll show us the way.

As with all such areas of liberty, Romans 14 applies. It’s good to look into it, and it’s good to be fully convinced in one’s own mind. Different people may come to different conclusions about the same program, and they may both be right…for them.

A Christian who walks into your typical storefront dojo (a taekwondo school, say) finds himself in an alien world. There’s a bunch of people wearing pajamas and bowing to one another, folks with arcane titles like “Master” and “Grandmaster” and so on. What does it all mean? Can a Christian be part of it?

As to the bowing and titles, I’d advise looking into what it means in the parent culture. If two businessmen in that culture would traditionally bow to one another when they meet (as opposed to shaking hands like we do), then I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s a greeting. You’re paying to learn a practice from someone else’s culture; it’s silly to be upset that they don’t act like Westerners. Similarly, look to what the titles mean in the home culture.

For example, my own title (which I never use except on official paperwork, but more about my practice later) is Guru Muda, which is enough to make any red-blooded, English-speaking Christian spit. But in Bahasa Indonesia, guru means ‘teacher’ with no particular spiritual connotations; one can be a guru of chemistry or Chinese literature or engineering. (Muda means ‘young;’ the ‘young teacher’ designation is roughly analogous to an ‘associate professor’ in our university ranking system. The next step up is ‘teacher;’ the one after that is ‘master teacher.’) The reason guru has spiritual connotations in English is because spiritual teachers from India used their native word for teacher (guru) when they came here—Vivekananda and the like. For the same reason, the Japanese sensei has martial arts connotations in America, thanks to the karate teachers who came here (and the Karate Kid movies)—but again, in Japanese it just means teacher. A friend of mine who was teaching English in Tokyo thought it was really funny that his students called him their sensei. They didn’t understand why it sounded funny to him—to them, sensei has no martial arts connotations.

As to the flag and the yin-yang symbol: Taekwondo in particular is regarded as a Korean national heritage, and the Korean flag is nearly always displayed in Taekwondo schools (as you’ll sometimes find the Japanese flag displayed in a traditional Karate school). I look forward to the day when the symbol on the Korean flag is a cross rather than a yin-yang, but I’d be reluctant to conclude something was spiritually fishy about a particular school based on the flag alone. I mean, jeepers, there’s a bunch of pentagrams on the American flag, but nobody thinks you’re secretly worshiping the host of heaven because you happen to have a flag on your porch or in your church. (Whether it belongs in your church, and what it means to display it there, is another discussion. But it doesn’t mean you’re a sky-worshiper.)

On these sorts of things, you have to keep in mind what you’re doing, and accept its necessary conditions as the cost of doing business. You’re learning to fight from people who know how. Taking one thing with another, the people who are really great fighters did not get that way by being happy, well-adjusted humans. You’re not likely to be dealing with saints and Sunday school teachers, ya know? (Yes, there are exceptions. Don’t hold your breath.)

Another (often-)necessary condition is crossing cultural barriers. Here in the West, we developed firearms to an exquisite degree, and at the same time we have developed a society that’s less violent than anything ever seen before in human history. Apart from some arcane holdouts if you know where to look, the West has not really preserved its traditions of hand-to-hand combat; those that have a serious need, carry guns. So you’re going to a culture where their hand-to-hand arts haven’t been lost, to learn the way they do it—which is different than how things are done here. So you remember who’s the visitor, and be polite. If they bow instead of shaking hands, you learn how to bow. If they like onion in their tea, then you learn to drink onion in your tea. If they treat their bruises with foul-smelling herbs after practice, then you do too.

If they bow to a little shrine containing pictures of their ancestors in the art, you politely explain that you will happily offer God a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have preserved the art for you and passed it down to you, but God forbids bowing to images of the dead. If they won’t teach you because of that, off you go—that one wasn’t for you. But the point here is that outside of things God actually forbids, there’s no point in going all ‘ugly American’ just because the foreigners are acting foreign. If you don’t like it, go to a boxing gym.

The degree to which a particular school spends time on whatever philosophy may underlie the art varies widely from school to school, and sometimes from teacher to teacher even within a single school. Some places, it gets pretty deep. Other places focus on the physical art. (One teacher, asked about the spiritual side of his (Japanese) art, said, “Yeah, there’s a spiritual side: the dead guy doesn’t get to go to church.” Another one, this one Chinese: “Our philosophy? Our philosophy is to crash through the opponent’s center and kill him.” Not everybody uses the art as a platform for teaching a spirituality.)

The point here is, you gotta go and find out for yourself, and whether it’s a deal-breaker depends on what the prospective student is ready for. An awful lot of Christians want some kind of guarantee in advance that nothing will make them uncomfortable. They seem afraid of getting somehow tainted by rubbing shoulders with pagans. They’d prefer to do all their research online, and won’t go to the events and meet the people. That’s a poor way to handle apologetic engagement. Apologetic engagement requires, well, engagement. If you don’t go and see for yourself, you’ve no right to complain when people answer your objections by telling you that you don’t know the first thing about it. They’re right; you don’t.

Having found out, you then have to answer some hard questions. Is this philosophy attractive to me? Does it repulse me? Why? What is true about it? What is false about it? How do I know? The cautions Paul gives in Colossians about philosophy and vain deceit apply here, as do the characteristics of idolatrous thought laid out in Romans 1. Any Christless philosophy is vain and self-defeating, but sometimes it takes some growth in us before the self-defeating nature of the system becomes apparent to us. At the same time, because everyone–despite their ardent pretense otherwise–is living in Yahweh’s world, they often learn some useful things about that world. Sifting the operations of common grace from the operations of human depravity takes a good eye. So we need to grow, but there’s no need for panic.

Those same cautions apply to enrolling in Leviathan State University as an engineering or pre-med major. The student will encounter all kinds of ugly ideas and sub-Christian worldviews. There’s work to be done to counter them, but God has not given us a spirit of fear. You don’t want someone enrolling—either in your state university or in a martial arts school—who isn’t up to the challenge the environment will present to their worldview. So get ‘em ready, and then send ‘em in.

Now, as to what I do with my classes: I don’t pretend this is The One Right Way To Do Things, but I’ve been teaching since 1999, and this is what I’ve found works best for me and mine. I practice Kuntao Silat, an Indonesian art brought here by Dutch-Indonesian immigrants in the 60s. Some of the leaders and senior practitioners are Christian; some are not. The roots of the art are deeply mixed: Muslim, animist, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian. There are some practices in our history I don’t find appropriate as a Christian, so I don’t do them.

The terminology of the art is largely in Bahasa Indonesia, with a smattering of other languages thrown in; Indonesia is a polyglot kinda place in language and culture, just like it is in religion. I know what the Indonesian terms mean, but my students mostly don’t;  I teach my classes in English. (E.g., sapu and beset are two fundamental leg movements in the art; my students know them as ‘scoop’ and ‘drag’ respectively.) Shoot, half my students don’t even know my title is Guru Muda. They call me Tim.

We don’t open my classes with a bow. We open my classes with a blessing (and since I’m not starting a cult, we do it round-robin style; I give and receive.) All my students learn to speak blessing over other people, even if it’s a simple, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” or “May your training be blessed today.” If you’re not willing to look another human being in the eye and speak blessing over them, I’m certainly not going to teach you how to hurt people.

After the blessing, we begin the class, which is informal and at times very demanding. You can teach martial arts with a number of different focuses (sport, cultural heritage, performance art, fitness, healthy movement, mental discipline, self-defense); I focus on healthy movement, discipline, and self-defense.

At the end of class, we finish with a closing circle where each student has to articulate one thing he learned that day, and one thing he intends to practice in the coming week. Then we have a closing blessing, and class is over.

Along with translating the terms to English, I’ve dropped a lot of the cultural trappings. This is a philosophical decision each teacher has to make for themselves: do you try to replicate your own learning experience as closely as possible, or do you cannibalize your own learning experience selectively to craft a new learning experience for your students? If you are, say, a traditionally raised Japanese man who learned jiu-jutsu from another traditionally raised Japanese man, you have a pretty good shot at reproducing your learning experience for the next generation of students, and it might be a good idea.

In my circumstances, that approach didn’t make much sense. The men who brought my arts to the U.S. grew up in colonial Dutch Indonesia before WWII, and like the Preacher said, “All is mist.” They are the products of a unique time, place, and culture that no longer exists. I’m a white boy from Virginia; I can’t reproduce that culture and I don’t intend to try. All the bowing and flags and so on leaves me cold, so I don’t bother with it. I’m passing on the fighting art, so that’s what we spend time on. I’ll teach some tidbits about the culture and history as it illuminates the movement or the mentality of the art (which it does), but the point is to understand the fighting art.

In my classes, we laugh a lot. We play, we have fun. But I also make my students face the ugliness of what we’re doing, for two reasons. First, I want them to come to terms with it in training before they have to face it for real. Second, it’s bad for your soul to romanticize a discipline where the raw material is healthy bodies and the finished product is cripples and corpses.

The theology is relevant, and it comes up as we work through the ethical issues that come with training to injure people. We can’t lose sight of the fact that what we are training for is not good. We broke the world, and introduced evil. We are living with the consequences, which include the need to fight evil—if you love sheep, you have to be ready to fight wolves. But—thank God—these things have an end. Jesus has already triumphed over evil and buried it in the heart of the earth; it just doesn’t know it’s dead yet.

On the glorious last day, we will beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks. From that day forward, we will no longer study war, and that will not be a sad day. No one will look back nostalgically at the good old days when we worked so hard to be ready to hurt people. But you have to know where you are in the story; friends don’t let friends over-realize their eschatology. Our job is to be ready for the last day when it comes, and until then, to be ready for tomorrow no matter what comes.


The Redemption of Natural Philosophy

9 November 2018

In order to understand the place of science in the world, we need to define some terms.

Natural Philosophy: an investigation into the way the natural world is and the way it works. In ancient times, philosophers weren’t just concerned with intangibles or ethics or human nature, they were also concerned with how the world worked. So Aristotle, for example, expresses a natural philosophy.

Science: born out of natural philosophy, science is a particular way of investigating the natural world that relies on generating ideas about the world, generating predictions from those ideas, testing the predictions through repeatable experiments, and revising the ideas accordingly. Or so it says on the wrapper….

Scientists object to being lumped in with natural philosophy because they consider themselves vastly more rigorous than the natural philosophers, and insofar as they really are more rigorous, they have a point. But then, many scientists also regard naturalism as coextensive with ‘Science,’ and naturalism is a religious conviction not subject to scientific testing — so they’re natural philosophers. They just can’t help themselves. Religion gets into everything, and there is no neutrality.

Special Revelation: God telling us something particular. Sometimes questions about the world do address an area where God has spoken. For example, “Is it true that we’ll die if we eat this particular fruit?” As our experience in Eden demonstrates, when God has spoken to a point, it is wise to take His revelation into account.

False religion: various untrue ideas about spiritual things. The principal goal of these ideas is to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, to keep Yahweh out of human awareness.

We are obliged to hear special revelation. What God has shown us must be taken into account, period.

We are obliged to disregard false religion. We may not bow down to or in any wise serve idols, and ideas that exist to turn us away from Yahweh are to be rejected out of hand.

Science and natural philosophy, however, are a different matter, and have to be handled differently. Science and natural philosophy are always tied in with an overall worldview, and it matters which one they’re tied in with. Carl Sagan’s science is no more to be trusted than Lao Tzu’s natural philosophy — but no less, either. To the extent that they have observed the natural world accurately, they must be recognized. Paul requires it: “Whatever things are true…think on these things.” To the extent that they have failed to glorify Yahweh and be thankful, they have exalted themselves against the knowledge of God, and they must be cast down. Since we have to do both of these things, we are simply not permitted to discard them, nor to swallow them whole. We are required to seek the redemption of science and natural philosophy, to see these disciplines brought into obedience to Christ.

In the Western world, we like to lump science on the side of the angels, and demonize natural philosophy. Christians have adopted this into our theological schema very uncritically, such that Western medicine is appropriate for Christians (despite its pronounced tendency to murder babies) and acupuncture is not, because it’s not scientific and tied up with Taoism.

Well, sure it’s tied up with Taoism. Good thinkers always seek a consistent, integrated view of everything, and Chinese natural philosophers didn’t keep their Taoism locked in a box whilst they were observing the natural world. Whaddaya expect? Nor did Carl Sagan keep his atheism locked in a box when he looked through a telescope — but I don’t know even one Christian who thinks that means we should ignore what he saw. If we’re prepared to accept insights about the natural world from the round-eyed observer, then why are we so balky about the slant-eyed ones?

Frankly, I think it’s simple xenophobia. Our M.D. doesn’t believe that we have a soul, and that doesn’t bother us at all, because we’re used to it. An acupuncturist says something about yin and yang, and we lose our minds — without even stopping to find out what he meant. As communication improves and the world comes back together again, we need to learn to listen carefully rather than simply rejecting unfamiliar things out of hand. We might learn something.


A Cautionary Letter

7 September 2018

The Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi
Horus Street
Pithom, Egypt

Aaron ben-Amram
Goshen, Egypt

Dear Mr. ben-Amram,

We thank you for notifying us about the practices in which you and your brother Moses are engaged. In these turbulent times, many people have grown confused about the worship of the Most High. The Discernment Committee exists to educate Israel about the proper worship of the Almighty, and to expose the many pagan practices that have infiltrated the congregation of Israel.

Unfortunately the practices of your brother fall into this category. Upon review of our history, we find no precedent for any of the so-called “revelations” that your brother brings to the table. The God of Abraham spoke to Abraham face to face, as a man speaks to his friend, and to the other patriarchs in dreams. There is no precedent whatsoever for the Almighty speaking out of a burning bush, still less some paranormal bush that was “burning but not consumed,” whatever that means.

Moreover, the “miracles” that your brother brings to validate his “revelations” are the furthest thing from the sort of uplifting and worshipful miracles that might genuinely befit the Most High. These signs your brother brings — turning his hand leprous, turning water into blood—are disturbing, morbid, and frankly just bizarre. And again, there is just no precedent of the Almighty doing such things.

As to the matter of turning sticks into snakes, well…if I might be frank, a Levite of your education ought to know better. You know our troubled history with the serpent, and the very idea of validating some sort of connection with the Almighty by turning your walking stick into the symbol of Satan…well, surely you’re not that tone deaf. This is not the work of the God of Abraham.

Moreover, our research indicates that this snake-stick demonstration is a practice of the Egyptian sorcerers Jannes and Jambres, among other local occultists. These men are worshippers of a variety of false gods, entities that you and I know to be demonic in nature. Surely you can see that participating in such an occult practice opens a wide door to the demonic in your own life, and we would urge you to immediately repent of and renounce your involvement in this grave sin.

If you’ll forgive a personal note here, I knew your late father, may he rest in the bosom of Abraham, and he would be deeply grieved to see his sons carrying on in such a manner. Moses always was a bit impulsive, so perhaps it’s understandable. But for you, Aaron, to get caught up in this…I just don’t know what to say. You and your sister Miriam have always been the sensible ones. May the Most High forgive me for saying so, but I’m honestly glad your father didn’t live to see you getting carried away by Moses’ nonsense. Amram was always rightly proud of you, and this would have just broken his heart.

But recriminations won’t solve anything, and we need to find a way to move forward. I’m afraid the best-case scenario here is that your brother has serious mental health issues. Four decades alone in the desert would be a strain for anyone, and it’s not implausible that his frustrated lifelong desire to be the liberator of Israel finally caused a psychotic break. As awful as it sounds to say so, I sincerely hope this is the case. Our people have always made excellent psychiatrists, and there is some hope that with lengthy therapy, your brother could be delivered from his delusions and return to a somewhat normal life. If indeed they are delusions. I sincerely hope they are, because the alternative is to take your brother’s account at face value.

In that case, some entity known as “I am” spoke to your brother from a burning bush and induced him to perform these morbid and bizarre pagan practices. Given the pagan associations of these practices, we can only conclude that the entity known as “I am” is a demon, and for your own safety, we would urge you to have no further contact with your brother while he is under the influence of this unclean spirit.

We maintain a resource list of mental health professionals and exorcists for concerned families in your unfortunate situation. Please find it enclosed. I urge you to consult with one or more of them regarding next steps for your brother.

We pray that the Almighty’s mercy will cover you and your family during this very difficult time.

Sincerely,
Yochanan ben-Zacharias
Communications Director
Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi