Quarters

I think about spiritual disciplines like quarters. They’re little daily investments.

Praying once, searching the Scriptures once, serving once—they’ll be nice and have some influence on the day. But they won’t sustain.

And if you miss a day, no need to be racked with guilt. It’ll be okay. The one-time hit or miss isn’t the real issue. It’s the drip, drip, drip over time that makes the difference.

You’ve probably heard the same about financial investing. Slow and steady. With the marvel of compound interest, the investments you make today keep building on themselves over time.

With spiritual disciplines, each small investment shapes you. We know this—it’s how most things in our lives work. When was the day that you got in such great (or bad!) physical shape? You can’t name it. It was a long series of quarters. For most millionaires, the day they became a millionaire… was just the next day in a series of small investments.

Of course, there are also landmark moments. The person who inherits her millions can tell you the day it happened. Even more for the person who lost his fortune in a day. Spiritually, these compare to the person who had a sudden conversion or a tragic fall from grace.

But a lot of it is quarters. Each little investment on its own may not do a lot.[1] A day missed isn’t the end of the world. But drop in eight quarters a day for 60 years, and you end up with $1 million.[2]

We’d read this to assume that we make the investments in our own growth. A better way to think about it starts with spiritual disciplines as means of grace. These practices are means of receiving God’s grace, as God makes it available to us. Through them, God invests his grace in us.

 

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[1] Although occasionally that ordinary routine becomes something extraordinary––the day you read a certain passage or showed up to serve somewhere and it changed your life.
[2] I’m using an 8% return rate.

The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith, catechesis and other wisdom on theology and ministry: An interview with Dr. Philip Tallon

Philip Tallon

Picture courtesy of philiptallon.com

 

I want to introduce you to Philip Tallon –– for two reasons.

First, Philip is one of the most perceptive and creative theologians I know. He works on heady topics like theological aesthetics and chairs the apologetics department at Houston Baptist University. He also served as a director of student ministries and writes about Spider-Man, Fight Club, and The Legend of Zelda.1 I know several people doing deep, scholarly theological work. I know several people who are comfortable talking to teenagers and discussing pop culture. I know very few who live in both of those worlds––and combine them––as well as Phil does. I think his wisdom and practical insights below will be worth your time, even if you never read the book or watch the videos we discuss. His reference to “pastor-as-king” and his discussion of “mankind” and gender-inclusive language were alone worth the whole interview for me.

The second reason I want to introduce you to Phil is because of the book and videos I just referenced. He recently put out a new resource called The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. One of my greatest interests is to communicate deep theology (i.e. beyond superficial or flawed pop theology) in a way that normal people (i.e. not academics) can understand and apply it.2 The Absolute Basics is a great example of that. I think a lot of you would find it useful. Maybe on your own, but much better if you could use it with a group.

Here’s our interview about that resource and more…

basics

You’re so interesting to me for the variety of work you’re doing. Your other two books were an aesthetic theodicy and the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. And you’re contributing essays to books like The Legend of Zelda and Theology and Tarantino and Theology. How does this project fit in with all your other interests? And how do those other interests affect how you approached this project? Would this be different if it weren’t created by someone who’s also thinking about aesthetic theodicy and if Jesus could save aliens?

It’s funny that you ask this question, because I’ve often felt like The Absolute Basics was a bit of a side project for me, but now I realize that it’s more deeply connected to my other projects than I thought.

In pointing to all these other projects (my book on aesthetic theodicy, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) I guess the abiding interest is how theology and the arts talk to one another. There’s nothing I like more than thinking about how the arts enrich theology and vice versa. This is one of the reasons why C. S. Lewis is such a fascinating figure for me and many people. He did all this work in what we might call “public theology” and then he also went and wrote amazing stories that speak to what it means to live in God’s world. The avid Lewis lover gets the pleasure of thinking about how the two modes of discourse differ and connect. Since a pastor (Jeff Hoy) mailed me a copy of The Great Divorce when I was in middle school, while I was away for the summer, I’ve been enchanted with imaginative Christian writing. If anyone hasn’t read The Great Divorce and has to choose between two books to buy, his or mine, the choice is an easy one. Lewis all the way.

But back to the subject at hand, most of my writing has been meta-level reflection on theology and the arts, not an attempt to do theology through the arts myself. The Absolute Basics was an attempt to dip my toe into that. Specifically, I wanted to lay out some Christian theology for beginners in a way that was unapologetically doctrinal (speaking from the church) but was also creative. In this regard I was helped greatly by finding an illustrator who was a serious Christian and could help translate the ideas into images. I really can’t speak too highly of Andrew Chandler, the artist who helped me. Without him, I don’t think the book & videos would have had the reach they’ve had so far. He was able to take these images I had on the page and translate them into visual form with deft lines and a deep understanding of the Gospel.

Again, this synthesis of word & image, of conceptuality & creativity, is what I’m most interested in academically. I think sometimes we’ve regarded concepts as primary and creativity as a secondary ornament. Images being the biblia pauperum (the Bible for the illiterate) as it were, with spoken or written theology occupying pride of place and the arts being a secondary medium for filling in the margins, but of course the New Testament offers us a more integrated model. Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” the “express Image” of God incarnate. Therefore images and the imagination are already bound up in God’s self-communication. It isn’t that Jesus tells us about God with his words. He is God in very flesh. When we look at Jesus we see God. And Jesus, of course, used word pictures to talk about the Kingdom of God. This isn’t an accident. Aesthetics is bound up in the business of theology.

absolute-basics

I love the medium: a set of videos rather than just a written catechism. What inspired that?

The idea was there from the beginning. I was working in a church and knew I wanted to make something for students to use in theological education. I love those RSA Animate videos that illustrate lectures by famous thinkers. So I wrote something that could be feasibly animated. Something short with a visual hook, but where the visual element helped to enable the viewer to see the doctrinal ideas clearly.

In this sense, The Absolute Basics is really properly “read” by watching the videos, rather than just reading the text, because the illustrations are meant to be their own kind of faithful visual systematics (though a very minor systematics), where the images themselves can carry the content and help us to see the beauty & truth of God’s work in the world.

I loved some of the analogies you used. They were so easy to apprehend—trying to reconcile with friends after you ruin their Thanksgiving meal… except you can’t cook, or waving a white flag as analogy for justification. In fact, in almost all of your videos, your explanation is heavy on analogy and then you say something like, “That’s what happens in Acts…” Is this just how your mind works, or did you choose that approach for a particular reason?

Well, yes, this is just how my mind works. And I suppose it is probably how most minds work. We’re sensate, incarnate beings. Eugene Peterson says something like “stories are verbal acts of hospitality.” Most preachers get this intuitively or explicitly, and try to hang big slabs of ideas on meat hooks of the imagination in their sermons. I know some philosophers who prefer pure argumentation with premises lined up in straight rows of valid reasoning. And I appreciate this too. But even philosophers will often use analogies or thought experiments to engage our intuitions to support the plausibility of the premises. So analogies are just part of the work of communicating ideas. Again, back to Jesus, the parables invite everyone into Jesus’ way of seeing the world with unmatched economy.

Many of the extended analogies I used have theological precedents. Of the two you mention, these are nothing more than examples used by other thinkers with a fresh coat of paint. The Thanksgiving analogy–you wreck the dinner but can’t cook a new one yourself–is basically ripped from the pages of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (man ought to repay the debt of honor but can’t) and repurposed for an age that isn’t well acquainted with the feudal honor system. The white flag image is stolen from N. T. Wright’s discussion of repentance, where he talks about how Josephus commanded the rebels that tried to kill him to “repent & believe” in language that is basically identical in NT Greek to Jesus’ same words. Basically just “surrender and follow me.”

Maybe one thing more should be said about the analogies. One of the most common bits of feedback I get on the book is “great analogies.” I take this as the best kind of compliment, because I think analogies are so fundamental to understanding anything. Our language is shot through with analogy and metaphor even when we don’t realize it. We talk about good people as being “upright” or “solid.” We talk about bad people as “crooked” or “slippery.” We think about things in connection with other things. Nothing is ever really comprehended on its own, conceptually. Even God has to be grasped through analogy (as Aquinas articulates). God is best known to us through the metaphorical language of Father, Son, and Spirit. These metaphors are truthful, they show us who God is, but they also connect to us by way of analogy.

Anyway, this all went into my approach (intuitively or otherwise). The rhythm of the book is just a constant movement between ideas and analogies for this reason. If, in the end, the readers & viewers remember the analogies exclusively, I’ll still consider that a success.

A few questions about what you’re doing here as it relates to catechesis… You have 16 questions and answers and memory verses, too. Is your intention that people memorize the catechism answers and also the memory verses? Why the emphasis on memory?

It was my intention, at the very least, to offer something that was memorizable, and encourage that in the book. Hopefully churches will use it in this way. It’s certainly doable. If people can memorize the many, many lyrics in all 47 songs in Hamilton they can handle my 16 questions and answers. I mean, it’s good to ingrain the words of scripture on our hearts and minds, and to be able to repeat formal theological language. It’s even scriptural, as we read in Deuteronomy 6. It’s also not as hard as we often think. Once you get rolling, memorization becomes easier. And, of course, memorization isn’t just about getting down the content, it’s an act of meditation on God’s revelation. We’re delighting in scripture & theology through memorization & repetition.

There’s also, of course, a necessary role that memorization plays in the life of the church. If we want to be certain that Christians have really learned what the church believes, then accurate memorization is a clear way of testing that. We live in an age, at least in the American church, that has poured more resources than ever before into Christian education, but I’m skeptical that we’ve produced better educated Christians as a result. Part of this is that we put all the emphasis on top-down teaching–clear communication, engaging activities, and so forth–but very little on bottom-up responsibility for learning. On cloudy days, this strikes me as a flaw in our conception of the role of the pastor. We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king. A responsible reflection of Christ’s threefold office should at least reckon with the ways that pastors have a duty to ensure that new Christians have truly learned what Christians believe (not to mention how Christians live). What all this looks like in practice is fuzzy to me, and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and critique the coach, but it seems that at least part of Christian education should include real examination of the theological literacy of church members and, if wanting, insist on some kind of basic standard. At least in doctrinal terms, some kind of catechesis members can faithfully repeat from memory seems to be a fitting expectation. I’m still working through all this, but my sense is that our bar for real learning (not to mention living) is far lower that of other great periods in the church.

You and I have talked before about the benefits and drawbacks of creating new catechisms. Seedbed alone has four different catechisms available. Part of me wishes we could all use just one so that we could have that language in common among a larger group of people. What’s the benefit, in your mind, of creating a new catechism rather than all rallying around one that’s already available?

Right now it does seem like “of the making of catechisms there will be no end.” There’s your revised version of an older Methodist one. And more on Seedbed. And newer ones in books like Key United Methodist Beliefs. And now mine. And yes, I agree that there is something seemingly contradictory about having a bunch of different catechisms. It’s a bit like having a bunch of different sets of traffic laws taught in different driver’s ed classes. Not that the various catechisms necessarily contradict, but it is odd to say, “Here are the basics” when in fact there are other lists with expanded or contracted sets of basic ideas. This was very much on my mind & heart when I wrote up my 16 Qs & As. With this in mind (and without trying to sound too defensive) I reviewed most of the other extant catechisms so that I was working with these other, wiser voices. Hopefully they fit together in the way that various “longer and shorter” catechisms work together, like Luther’s catechisms or the Westminster catechisms.

I was, at least, encouraged in reviewing the UMC Book of Discipline to note that the Articles of Religion already contain a complimentary plurality in that the articles of the Methodist Church and the articles of the Evangelical United Brethren were both included, rather than being unified into a single set. And of course Wesley himself edited the Church of England’s articles for Methodism. All of this suggests a healthy underlying logic, that these doctrinal statements are attempts to faithfully express God’s self-revelation in scripture, and by that they are judged, and are therefore open to revision and re-expression in the life of the church as the Spirit and wise judgment lead us.

All that being said, hopefully anyone using this catechism in the church would come to these other longer catechisms with greater understanding and appreciation.

You’re especially recommending this for use in confirmation. I know that was your initial use for it. What inspired you to create it for confirmation? Was there something you found missing or insufficient in any of the other confirmation curricula?

Indeed. This all started from a pastoral context. I was charged with the teaching part of the confirmation process and tried to figure out how to do it faithfully and well. There’s a lot of material out there, much of it good, some of it not-so-good, but nothing that I thought would work for my confirmands in our situation. Sociologically speaking, confirmation is still an important rite for many in the church. Most of the parents in our church thought it mattered that something happened with the students, and I wanted to make sure we seized the opportunity. I care about theological education and if I muffed this opportunity to invest the talents given to me I’d feel that as a failure.

But there was also a deeper, objective purpose. Confirmation is the moment when people reaffirm their baptismal vows and commit to discipleship. That’s huge. And a key part of that is knowing what Christians believe. (Here I should note that the confirmation process is about more than that. It is also about Christian living, but we’re talking about theological education mostly, so I’ll focus there.) I wanted to make sure that my confirmands really knew their stuff when they stood up and affirmed their belief in the Triune God. This was the reason behind the catechism & memory verses, but more distinctly, it was the driving reason behind the image-rich videos. We were catechizing 6th-graders, and I wanted to make sure I offered an act of “intellectual hospitality” to them in meeting them where they were, but also not leaving them where they were.

Most of the other resources (to my mind) were either a) theologically astute or b) fun & engaging, but weren’t both. Some resources were neither. (Though, of course, nothing in Seedbed’s catalog would ever fail to be theologically astute.) Given the response I’ve gotten from other youth leaders, it seems I’m not alone in wanting something more than what was on offer for students especially. In this regard, I’ve been fortunate to have accidentally-yet-providentially stumbled on a widespread need. And that need seems to go beyond youth ministry, as there seem to be many adults who are looking for something that is unapologetically doctrinal while also being engaging and accessible.

Saying all of this puts my temperamental self-effacement on edge, because it sounds to my own ears a bit like bragging. To put my nerves at ease, I will add that I never intended to put my work in the conversation for fundamental Christian education, but the needs of ministry at the time seemed to call for it, and a publisher wanted it, and the reports I’ve gotten suggest that it’s been a help to ministers in the field. Hopefully God approves as well. (This also sounds kind of braggy in a faux-humble way.)

You used the NIV translation for your Scripture passages. That includes the use of “mankind” in some passages, like the ones you use for creation. I know some people have a problem with “mankind” not being gender inclusive. Any reason you chose to stick with that translation?

I used the NIV because it is a common translation, and, although imperfect, as all translations are, it is clear and yet not too wooden. It works well enough, and it was also the version in our church’s pews. I also have some specific gripes (probably uncharitable) against some other translations that have denominationally-unhelpful theological underpinnings or are hard to memorize. Specifically, I didn’t want to use the ESV because the Study Bible version reiterates a lot of Calvinist theology in the notes. So I didn’t want to initiate students into that version. This is where the (perhaps) uncharitable bit comes in. But maybe not. Calvinism is, in my view, a seriously flawed theological tradition that is fundamentally opposed to the core of Wesleyan teaching. Other versions just don’t flow nicely for memorization, such as the NASB or the CEB. I strongly considered the NRSV. The KJV is a work of beauty, but is so removed from common language that it requires additional ‘translation,’ which is a problem for contemporary church use.

Regarding traditional gendered language, I have no quibble at all. In this regard, the NIV’s use of “mankind” is a strength, one could argue. First off, gendered usage reflects more closely the original Greek. Secondly, words like “mankind” or “man” (referring to humans) are just part of standard English usage. I don’t tend to use “man” or “mankind” in my own writing, but I don’t object to their usage, and I don’t think we need to exile the word to the dustbin. “Mankind,” properly understood, refers to man and woman inclusively. Now that I say this, I’m regretting my own capitulation to standard academic usage by not using the term more. Further, outside of academic circles, I’ve rarely met anyone who raises the issue. So I don’t think it’s a relevant pastoral issue. At least, it hasn’t been one for me.

So as not to end answering this question on a rant, I’ll say that I am at least philosophically committed to preserving traditional language. Returning to the KJV, there is something that is lost, I reckon, in losing the formal addresses (“Thou,” “Thy,” etc.). Looking back at the distance between our common language and the variety and beauty of older English expression makes me wish that we had done more in the past to preserve it. I suppose this suggests I should have opted for the KJV as my translation of choice (or something akin), but again, one wants scripture to speak clearly now, and so as a pastor, using such an old translation seems imprudent. These are the tensions one lives with.

I’m curious, what did you learn from doing this project?

Thank you for asking this question. It’s an easy question to answer, though with a harder resultant implication. There are two key things I learned in the process. One is that, in working with confirmands, we had not dedicated nearly enough time to the process. The default schedule was only 8 weeks. Even covering what I took to be the basics of theology requires, in my view, at least double that. Secondly, I focused on doctrine (as befits an academic egghead), but a faithful confirmation process needs to attend as much to Christian living. This is a gap in my work. There really should be a second part to The Absolute Basics focusing on spiritual disciplines, Christian morality, and so forth. Not to mention there’s a need to talk about Methodism specifically, its history and distinctions, which my work largely overlooks. Perhaps we’ll be able to create some supplementary materials in the future, but until then I hope that anyone using the material in churches will be able to make up for the deficiency.

Have you heard any good stories from people who are using this yet? Anything that surprised you from how you expected it to be used?

I’ve been flattered by the good feedback. Many folks are using it much like I have, for confirmation mostly. But I’ve also heard it is used for adult education classes or in new member initiation. The reality is that most churchgoers really don’t have much of a theological grounding, so it seems to be a help in a range of contexts. Probably the most unexpected use was its adoption in a systematic theology class at HBU (not taught by me). The professor used it to get all his students up to speed with basic doctrine in the first few weeks before they dove into heavier material. This was a bit surprising because the book looks so unassuming. It has cartoons on the cover and throughout. I never expected the book to be on a college syllabus. But it seems to be helpful to the students. Honestly, I never expected this to go much beyond confirmation class. It’s a helpful reminder, I suppose, that sometimes the best things you do aren’t the things you expect to have an impact.

I conducted this interview in association with broader questions I’m asking this year related to theology and catechesis. Thanks to the Louisville Institute and their Pastoral Study Program for grant support that has enabled this work.

 

I hope you enjoyed this interview. Now two things:

1 — Go to Seedbed and check out The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. You can see the catechism, a book preview, the first two videos in the series, and several leaders’ guides.

2 — Click here to subscribe for my blog updates. My goal is to provide thoughtful articles on theology and ministry and to introduce you to others who are doing the same.

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  1. That’s a small sample. See his CV for more, or to see where you can find those articles.
  2. As part of a grant I received through the Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project, I’m having several conversations this year with people who are doing this kind of work––work I call catechesis.

On the Myth of the Soul Mate

I don’t run guest posts on this blog. I occasionally point you to an article or interview I’ve found helpful, but that’s all. I’m breaking that rule for this post.

I’ve written occasionally––here and here, for example––about our theology of sex and sexuality, or a lack thereof in most of the protestant church. Those were, as I said then, only a running start.

Taylor Zimmerman is doing some of the best work and thinking that I’ve heard on these topics. He has helped me think with more depth and clarity about friendship, celibacy (or people who may instead call themselves unmarried or single), marriage and sexuality.  I think he’s accomplishing exactly what he names below as his goal: providing “a more cohesive, comprehensive and gospel-centered message about human relationships that the world desperately needs.”

I hope you’ll take the time to read and consider, and then share, what Taylor says below. For more from him, see his blog site. Taylor promises me more to come there on these topics.

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On the Myth of the Soul Mate

In The Symposium by Plato, Aristophanes begins a large discourse answering the question of Erotic love. Aristophanes tells a story of the origin of humans, that humans were created male and female together before Zeus split them in half. That is why, explains Aristophanes, a man or a woman must spend time seeking out their other half so that they might be whole again. He rather poetically writes:

Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘what do you people want of one another?’ They would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single human, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two — I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?’ — there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.

Although Socrates later criticizes Aristophanes’ portrayal of love as finding one’s other half, it seems as though Plato might have had a word our modern culture is all too happy to receive––that we were created to be ormeant to be with our soul mate and now we must be constantly searching for this elusive man or woman who will satisfy all of our needs.

From How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby who is constantly seeking out “the one” and praying to the Universe to provide her to him to Disney Pixar’s Lava Short where Uku, the volcano, has no one to love and almost dies without a romantic partner,1 we see this philosophy present in almost every form of popular media. Think even in our popular culture how we perpetuate this idea with our language and conversations. When a friend expresses his loneliness to us, we are quick to respond, “It’s okay! You’ll find someone soon!” or “Don’t worry! There’s someone special out there for you!”

When we say things like, “Wow, Susan [or Bobby or Steve or Mary] is so great! She is smart, kind, physically attractive and a great business woman! I wonder why she’s not married?,” we imply that Susan is incomplete and lacking love. Or worse, we imply that despite Susan’s great accomplishments and relationships, there’s ultimately something fundamentally wrong with her as to why she isn’t married.2

The cultural philosophy of having a “soul mate” is one that has slowly worked its way into the Church, creating perhaps even more devastating results. We have exchanged a more traditional, historically Christian understanding of sex, marriage, and love for our culture’s view (albeit while jamming it into our traditional forms). Now, the triune God wants me to be in a relationship (e.g. “God wouldn’t have put this in your heart to never satisfy it” or “God just gave me a word that you have someone special in your future“3).

www.christianmingle.com

This philosophy of romantic relationships is eroding our sexual ethic and crippling our witness to the surrounding world. In the words of Robert Webber, Evangelicalism has suffered an “evangelical amnesia” by forgetting its past.4 We have all the forms of our faith, yet very little of the deeper meanings.

When it comes to marriage, we understand that adultery is bad, porn is bad, marriage is good, and sex, well, we don’t really know how we feel about sex. Yet, we don’t really know why we believe this. We might be able to appeal to certain proof texts or a few principles we heard growing up, but we largely lack a robust, cohesive theological system to root our beliefs in. Thus, we end up creating our own meanings to these ancient beliefs about sex and marriage, and what we end up with is a sexual ethic that looks no different than the surrounding world’s, with just as many casualties.

Often our only draw to not engage in sinful behavior is to promote how great sex will be when you get into marriage. www.xxxchurch.com

In this essay, I will show how the protestant church’s shifting beliefs about erotic love have affected not only sexual ethics (including the common occurrence of premarital sex, pornography use, adultery, and divorce within our congregations), but also our interactions and ministry to/with LGBT persons in and outside of our church, our treatment of unmarried men and women (the “spares” if you will), and our support of the opposite-sex marriages within our churches. Yet what I ultimately hope to prove is that by putting marriage and sex in its proper and historically-Christian place, Evangelicals can begin to reorder other aspects of their theology and provide a more cohesive, comprehensive and gospel-centered message about human relationships that the world desperately needs.

The Shift

In a recent article for the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax lays out several arguments for why Evangelicals have been “‘holding the line’ on same-sex marriage while adopting virtually every other wrongheaded aspect of our culture’s view of marriage.” Wax argues that Evangelical marriage has been far more revisionist from the traditional Christian understanding of marriage than Evangelicals will readily accept. While Evangelicals are quick to affirm that same-sex marriage would change the fundamental definition of marriage, many are blind to the ways that they have appropriated the surrounding culture’s view of marriage with their large acceptance of no-fault divorce, birth control, and hyper-emotivism as the sole reason to marry.

Ron Belgau, a gay celibate Catholic and editor of Spiritual Friendship, remarked on his blog about this state of Evangelical theology. “From time to time, my friend Justin Lee––founder of the Gay Christian Network––and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality,” Belgau writes, “Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin ‘changed his theology’ to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology.”

In a somewhat surprising twist, Belgau admits that it was his own theology that changed. “I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.” He concludes, “The connection between marriage and procreation––which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages––was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.”

Abigail Rine, who wrote the First Things article that prompted Belgau’s reflective blog post, described this Evangelical marital understanding. “While the ideal of raising a family is ever-present in evangelical culture, discussions about sex itself focused almost exclusively on purity, as well as the intense spiritual bond that sexual intimacy brings to a married couple. Pregnancy was mentioned only in passing and often in negative terms, paraded alongside sexually transmitted diseases as a possible punishment for those who succumb to temptation. But for those who wait, ah! Pleasures abound!”

So what is this Evangelical view of marriage that Belgau fled from and Rine and Wax lament? This syncretic view of marriage asserts that the deepest, truest love is erotic love — the love that exists between romantic partners. I like to call this pervasive philosophy Existential Romantic Dyadism. ERD is the wide-spread belief that there is one romantic partner “out there” for a person that will fully satisfy him or her on a deep existential level and is his or her raison d’Ítre. Once brought into the Christian realm, ERD synthesized with shoddy sexual ethics, lingering prosperity theology, and perhaps a little antinomianism to produce a litany of sexual issues within the church that, to be very frank, the least of which is same-sex marriage despite what many loud Evangelicals would have us believe.

Let’s look at some examples.

Perhaps one of the clearest ones is how our churches treat unmarried people within the church.5 Many people in our pews suffer from Noah’s Ark Syndrome — this strong desire to see all of your unmarried friends coupled off. We like to talk among ourselves about who is going to date John or who is going to be a good fit for Sue. We just want them to find love, we tell ourselves. It’s just harmless fun, right? Yet, inherent in this sort of system is the underlying philosophy that someone is incomplete unless he or she has a romantic partner. Thus, by attempting to couple up all of our unmarried friends, we’re disincarnating them and treating them as incomplete halves who need our guidance so that they can be just like us — married. It tells the unmarried in our churches that they will never truly be respected for who they are until they’re married.

But perhaps worse is the more corrupt version of this where instead of viewing an unmarried man or woman as someone to pity for their incompleteness, unmarried women are viewed as temptresses within the church who are dangerous to happily-married couples and unmarried men are seen as sexual deviants who cannot control themselves sexually and are sex scandals waiting to happen. It’s often difficult for unmarried pastors to find work because of this. Some evangelicals even argue that unmarried men are spiritually immature and shirking their call from the Lord to be Biblical men.

In that vein, ERD has exponentially killed our ability to love deeply in multiple relationships. Since the underlying philosophy behind ERD is that the person that I’m married to (or romantically involved with) is my soul mate/other half/existential satisfaction, then should I find myself sexually or romantically attracted to another person I must either cut off any contact with this person or actually pursue a relationship with this person because clearly I chose wrong. Adding onto the issue, if the created intent of human beings is to be in a romantic/sexual relationship, then the deepest intimacy must be sexual intercourse. Therefore, any relationship that begins with sexual feelings must end with a sexual act. Thus, for example, if a heterosexual man finds himself attracted to a woman, he cannot simply be friends with her. He must either cut off the friendship or choose to act on his sexual feelings because those feelings aren’t going away.

Ask any Christian about sexual boundaries, and you’ll begin to hear very rigid sexual ethics (i.e. “a man is never allowed to be alone in the car with a woman,” “married men cannot be friends with single women,” or “while married men can be friends with married women, they better not get too deep.”) and someone’s bound to bring up the unproven fact that Billy Graham never rode in a car with a woman (quick answer: you’re not Billy Graham).

This is partly out of a fear of how other people will perceive the relationship but also out a fear that a man or a woman might become sexually attracted to someone they are not married to. If sexual attraction doesn’t go away and we must either cut the relationship off or consummate it, should the man or woman decide to cut off relationships, this tragically leaves couples with shallow friendships or no friendships at all. Should the man or woman decide to consummate the relationship, marriages might end in divorce because they “fell in love with someone else” or “someone else was ‘the one’.”

There’s obviously a ton more we could say about this including prize language to describe women (e.g. “Winning” the race to find love), purity culture, and much more. I will end, however, with perhaps the most devastating (at least in this writer’s opinion) result of ERD within our churches and that is the denigration of friendship.

Classical friendship used to be a big deal in the history of humankind. Aristotle spoke of the friend as one who is “intertwined with one’s own soul.“6 Cicero described friendship as an “agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity.“7 St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote, “Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always.“8 C.S Lewis described friendship as the relationship that “is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too?“9 Of course, Scripture also affirms this high view of friendship where Proverbs 17:17 describes the nature of a friend as one who “loves at all times” and Christ, when speaking to his disciples exclaimed, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

http://www.artofmanliness.com

To the ancients (and mostly throughout Church history for that matter), friendship was often seen as the highest of all the loves. To love someone who was not your family member or your marital partner in a disinterested fashion (without some ulterior motive or obligation) was seen in many ways to be far more pure and far more altruistic than any other love.

It’s unfortunate then that in our contemporary world we have largely disregarded the role of friendship. We view friendship as something that might be nice to have but is in no means necessary to us. Friendships rarely if ever make it on the priority list for us. We want a great job, a nice house, a spouse and 2.5 children, but friendship, well, if I never have a close friend, it’s no real loss. With the prevalence of ERD, if you recall, erotic love is the superior love that no other love can match. Well, if we believe that our romantic relationships will always succeed our friendships in intimacy, then we subject our friendships to superficiality or perhaps worse, don’t bother to get to know anyone on a deeper level at all.

Perhaps the clearest, most tragic indicator of this is in a series of studies done by sociologists from the University of Arizona and Duke University. Researchers found that while in 1985, the modal number of confidantes for American adults was three, the modal number of confidantes in 2004 was zero, “with almost half of the population (43.6) now reporting that they discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person.“10

All of this leaves us isolated. We feel incomplete if we have no spouse. We feel like we shouldn’t feel incomplete if we do have a spouse. We wonder if we married the right person or if the right person got away. And if we’re gay and trying to remain faithful to the Church, we are ostracized, isolated, and without meaningful intimacy of any kind.

So where did we go wrong? And, more importantly, how can we fix it?

When Did We Lose Our Way?

Although our culture says that marriage is primarily about two people who love each other, in Marriage, A History, historian Stephanie Koontz describes the only recent belief that marriage is for love. “In this Western model, people expect marriage to satisfy more of their psychological and social needs than ever before… Individuals want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex,” Coontz writes. “Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable…The adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.”

According to Coontz, historically, marriage was predominantly an economic and political institution and many cultures actually criticized marrying for something as “irrational as love.” George Bernard Shaw described the state of modern marriage quipping that marriage brings two people together “under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal and, exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.“11 Political philosopher Ryan T. Anderson speaks about contemporary marriage as “the adult relationship of my choice” centered around the emotions and self-actualization of the adults in the marriage. However, according to Anderson, the reason the government has historically been involved with marriage is not on behalf of the adults but rather for the sake of the children. The reason why marriage must be exclusive, involve one man and one woman, and be permanent is for the benefit and well-being of the child.

And this is very consistent with traditional Christian theology. St. Augustine wrote “For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk. Then follows the connection of fellowship in children, which is the one alone worthy fruit, not of the union of male and female, but of the sexual intercourse.“12 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.13

According to Christian tradition, the greater purpose of marriage and the sex act is not solely pleasure, is not solely companionship, and is not solely about the emotions of the people involved but rather is primarily oriented around procreation and the care of children. Holding this definition of marriage at the center of any theology of marriage and sexuality then makes everything else fall into place. Therefore, sex before marriage is sinful not because one should save herself for her spouse and be pure on her wedding day but, rather, because it is the covenant of marriage that protects the child. Divorce is sinful not just because it is antithesis to Christian love but also because it harms the child. Same-sex marriage and same-sex genital sexual behavior are not sinful because God thinks that gay people are icky or that gay couples are trying to destroy the family (on the contrary, they frequently want families) but because their union can never naturally be open to the vocation of child-rearing.14

Under this traditional Christian view of marriage, marriage is not the highest expression of love but is rather a loving relationship that has a vocational purpose. Where ERD says that a person must seek out his or her other half to be complete and loved, the conjugal view of marriage argues that marriage is far from that important. It serves a purpose, it is an expression of love, and it does reflect the self-sacrificial love of the trinity, but it is also one good among many — one vocation among many.

What does this mean then? It means that the problems I mentioned earlier with ERD can be put in perspective. For the unmarried men and women in our churches, they are not halves or spares seeking out their significant others to be made whole, but rather are whole persons in themselves. Instead of wishing that so-and-so would get married because he or she needs to find love, we can rather celebrate the friendships this person already has and already receives intimacy from. If also the deepest of intimacy can be experienced in a non-sexual way (contrary to ERD but very pro-Christian), we need not fear experiencing sexual attraction. We are not given two options regarding our sexual attractions––flee or consummate––but rather we can intimately love despite our sexual attractions, pursuing a chaste relationship without consummating it sexually.

But perhaps most importantly, this proper view of marriage allows us to have deeper, more fulfilling relationships with our friends. As stated previously, friends through the history of humankind have served the need of intimacy (until very recently). There’s a reason for this. God did not create us to be in dyads. He did not create us to couple off and be satisfied in human intimacy with just one person. We were created as multifaceted human beings; therefore, it stands to reason that one would need deep friendships and multiple ones at that. Again, in his book on love, C. S. Lewis writes it so eloquently when he says:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald… In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

Lewis argues that two people cannot truly satisfy one another (a fact that most couples tragically learn into their 3rd or 4th year of marriage after they’ve walked away from deep friendships). There are simply going to be things that one person cannot provide for another person. It is in this friendship relationship that Christians most demonstrate the beauty of the Gospel in that their love for one another is disinterested (in that it doesn’t rely on the special interests of one party) and is deeply cruciform. In a friendship, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to be known by another.

Friendships provide us with intimacy and love. If they are spiritual friendships, they reflect the love of our creator via our neighbor. Friendships not only challenge us to grow, but they support us with guidance, safety, and love. The woman who goes it alone is not the more free because she is unhindered by the people in her life but rather, she is severely handicapped, unable to love her neighbor and thus love her God. But for the person who is surrounded by deep, loving friendships, this is a servant who is doing the will of the Father.

Our Way Forward

It’s not enough to simply critique the current state of life — suffering under the current cultural regime and lamenting that the Church just isn’t good enough. Identifying problems is easy, and often becomes a means to avoid doing the real work of changing the culture. Eve Tushnet in an article on lay celibacy has this to say, “The fact that our churches so often fail in their communal eschatological witness doesn’t excuse you from your individual eschatological witness.”

The real work comes in opening one’s eyes to unBiblical systems within the church today and challenging a lot of the deep presuppositions about our relationships. For Christians, it means investing more deeply in our friendships. It means inviting people over for dinner regularly to socialize. It means making yourself emotionally vulnerable with a few people on a regular basis (small groups anyone?). It means inviting your friends on a family vacation, opening up your home for people that aren’t in your family to live with you, and it means loving people even (or especially!) when it’s uncomfortable.

I aspire to have a Church where unchurched people don’t ask, “What makes you different than me?” but rather, when acting in holy love, the Church is perceived like the Early Church where unchurched men and women look at us with unrighteous disdain. “Why are those people living together?” “It’s really weird how deeply you love that man or woman.” “Why are they all so close?” I aspire to have a Church where we can give rest to the heavy laden and all come together to the table where there are no tables for one, there are no tables for two, but rather, we all have a seat where we feast with one another at the Lord’s wedding banquet.

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  1.  For a fuller treatment on this, check out my longer blog post about it.
  2.  We do this with men, too. However, where women get accused of having something fundamentally wrong with them, men get accused of immaturity and laziness.
  3.  While I have no doubt that God could give a person a prophetic statement on anything including one’s romantic prospects, I personally find this version especially troubling as I hear this quite a bit, and I’m a vowed celibate man.
  4.  Webber, Robert. Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith
  5.  There’s a great conversation to be had here about what language is appropriate to describe this group of people that is not married. In many ways, I loathe the word “single” simply because there are no single people in the Kingdom of God. Too often the word single is associated with solitude and loneliness, and this word is often used to draw lines between those who have won and those who haven’t. Colloquially, we use the word single to mean someone who is alone and someone who has no connections with another human being. I’m in favor of using the word “celibate” more often because it describes a positive vocation, does not imply a lack of relationship, and is historically Christian. This word can also be used to describe someone who is divorced or is separated from his or her spouse for one reason or another as it describes their current sexual behavior and spiritual practice. Unfortunately, celibacy carries an odd social baggage which might prevent it from catching on. While I also have issues with the word “unmarried” because it describes a person by what he or she is not, I will use it for the rest of this essay.
  6.  Pangle, Lorraine Smith. Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship
  7.  Cicero, Marcus Tullius. De Amicitia
  8.  St. Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship
  9.  Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves
  10.  Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Mathew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71 (2006)
  11.  As quoted in John Jacobs, All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage
  12. Augustine. Of the Good of Marriage
  13.  CCC 1601
  14.  For the sake of time and writing space, I’m leaving out quite a bit more that I could say on this. No doubt some readers might ask questions about barren couples, adoption, etc. For a really good treatment of this, I recommend the book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George. These authors really parse out the conjugal view of marriage and answer the frequent objections.