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A Hiatus

Hello Everyone,

Thanks to all who have read the blog over the last few years. I’m going to be taking an indefinite hiatus from posting here at A Church Unbound. I’ve found myself writing more and more for a collaborative project called Flux of Thought (which I posted about last year) and thus have had increasingly less time to post here. A Church Unbound will remain up, but for now, I do not foresee myself putting any amount of time into new posts for it. My work, however, can still be found at Flux of Thought where I am collaborating with three other aspiring scholars in theology and philosophy of religion. Thanks again for reading!



Why Equal Rights for Same-Sex Couples is not a Question of Morality

In my last post, I wrote about justice, arguing that biblical justice is not a question of morality; rather it is a radical call to deny self in order bring justice to those on the margins, regardless of who they are or the sort of life they’ve been living. There’s a sense of banality that hangs over that claim. So many Christians know that already. It’s nothing new: Pick up your cross, and follow Christ. That means I serve the homeless, volunteer with kids who have special needs, visit shut-ins at a nursing home, etc. I don’t mean to diminish any of those things. They’re all great examples of what it means to follow Christ, especially if we do those things out of a compulsion to rather than an obligation–if we see those on the margins as people we genuinely care about and love and not people we need in order to feel good about our own spirituality.

That’s why the Supreme Court’s deliberation regarding the Defense of Marriage Act is so important in illustrating this challenge: The court’s ultimate decision is not a question of the morality of homosexuality. To be clear upfront, I do not believe homosexuality as such is a sin nor is it immoral. Sin and immorality are also not always the same thing. These are both two different posts though. What I want to do here is examine some good reasons for supporting gay marriage as a matter of bringing justice to those on the margins.

For those who already know the words “sin,” “immoral,” and “homosexuality” should never be in the same sentence, I’m with you–but this post isn’t for you. Some of the points I’m going to make will probably be frustrating, but I’m speaking to my fellow Christian brothers and sisters who are genuinely trying to struggle through this because they want to do the right thing. They’re trying to figure that out in the context of their faith. If we still affirm freedom of religion, then we have to allow that some people need to do that. I’m going to go through three of the major arguments against equal rights for married homosexual couples and make the case for why each should be abandoned based on what I think is a biblical notion of justice as well as some logical factors.

Homosexuality is immoral and a sin, and if we condone it through affirming equal mariage rights, we’re condoning immorality and sin.

This argument truly baffles me because our laws already allow for many activities that Christians already deem sinful. I’ve already mentioned freedom of religion. Doesn’t that allow for a lifestyle that many Christians would deem sinful–and a far more primary sin than homosexuality? That Christians are far more adamant about not condoning a homosexual lifestyle–a tertiary “doctrine” at best–than not condoning idolatry tells me that there is something confused going on when it comes to a strong stance against equal rights based upon this argument. We would never imagine denying the rights of a Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, even a Wiccan couple that are basic to all marriages under the law. Those folks did not have a Christian wedding, but we don’t talk about their rights or their marriages as condoning sin and immorality though many Christians probably believe that ultimately people of other faith traditions have it wrong. I don’t want to get too tangled in any sort of pluralist/universalist/exclusivist debate, so we’ll leave it at this: Why this issue and not others?

If we grant equal rights to homosexual couples, we are advocating the deterioration of marriage as a sacred practice.

Again, I’m a bit baffled by this. First, I’ve already mentioned that people of other faith traditions are obviously married, and their marriages probably have nothing to do with marriage as people think it is defined in the Bible. Why are we singling out homosexuals? Secondly, how is marriage defined in the Bible? I don’t think we do a good job of answering this question at all. Stanley Hauerwas has said that its confused to think that Biblical marriage is primarily about love since the marriages of the Bible had nothing to do with love. He writes “Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years. […] When marriage becomes a mutually enhancing arrangement until something goes wrong, then it makes no sense at all to oppose homosexual marriages.” (Thanks to Shawn McCain for posting the link to this blog.) Furthermore, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to talk about the deterioration of marriage when the church is already doing a really poor job of saving marriages from divorce–either by creating extremely unrealistic expectations for love and happiness in a marriage or not providing enough care to couples who are really struggling (the two usually go hand in hand.) I’ve seen many replies to this point along the lines of “Well neither are okay. Just because divorce is a problem doesn’t mean we let another problem in the door!” But again, both are only problems because we don’t understand what marriage is in the first place. That’s an insider issue though. When it comes to the rest of the country, why do we think we get to dictate how marriage works? Marriage is a legal standing and only a spiritual one in addition if one practices a particular faith–and even then, because we value the freedom of religion, marriage isn’t just one thing spiritually.

If we open the door for homosexuals, where will it end? Will we be condoning someone’s marriage to his dog, car, or gun next?

Short answer: No. This objection actually doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. First, our laws are pretty solid on only allowing marriage between two consenting adults. That means no marriage to kids, no marriage to animals, no marriage to inanimate objects. Setting all living categories aside for a minute, a marriage to an inanimate object wouldn’t change anything legally anyway. A car can’t have power of attorney. It can’t visit you in the hospital. As a car is already a person’s property, that person can do just about anything he wants with it (aside from infringing on the rights of others.) With regard to animals or kids where there are serious sexual considerations, there can’t be any legal consent, so they just can’t happen. Period. Other types of relationships that are between consenting adults, such as polyamorous relationships, get a little more complex, but it’s still post hoc to say allowing for equal rights in committed same sex marital relationships will inevitably lead to things like polygamy, marriage between family members, etc. Someone making that argument simply cannot show a causal connection between those that would suffice in a sound argument. Show me one other time in history where expanding the rights of other human beings has led to the moral decay of society. You can’t. The common response to this is, “Well why not? If you think homosexuality is okay, then why are you discriminating against grandmas who want to marry their granddaughters or two twin brothers who want to get married or three couples who all want to be committed to each other?” The answer is simple: it’s not inconsistent to think homosexuality is okay but those other things are not. There are no doubt people who disagree with that assessment (particularly on the point of polyamory.) And that’s okay. Those latter three are not at stake right now, and bringing them up is nothing more than a distraction from the issue that is at hand. I do not think family members should be able to marry each other, nor do I think polyamory is okay, but I think same sex marriage is absolutely okay. I think I have good reasons to believe those things, but this isn’t the place for those. The point is that thinking same sex marriage will inevitably lead to all sorts of licentiousness is post hoc, and it isn’t inconsistent to affirm same sex marriage but denounce other sorts of marriages as wrong.

Here’s the bottom line for me: We need to stop talking about “biblical principles” or “hard truths” with regard to this issue. Honestly, it’s just silly because most of us have no idea what those phrases even mean. I want to put what I’ve said so far as clearly as possible:

1. Our laws do not nor have they ever corresponded directly to biblical principles. They are designed to defend the freedom of everyone.

2. Most of the Christians engaged in this debate are not clear on what biblical marriage is.

3. We have no evidence, historical or otherwise, that granting equal rights to married same sex couples will open the door for other types of marriage scenarios.

Given those three points, it makes no sense for Christians to get hung up on the morality of homosexuality when it comes to equal rights within marriage. Why do we so easily forget that Jesus advocated for those whom the religious leaders of his day considered unclean to be able to come into the temple, to worship just as the Pharisees did? Was that not also a sacred act? To me this issue is a clear indication of what I described in my last post: When we entangle justice with morality, we often end up denying justice to those who really need it the most. The church can’t continue to deny justice and expect to remain relevant.

The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Theology

I keep encountering an assumption about liberal theology in general that has really been gnawing at me since I started diving deep into the work of the man who started it all, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Here’s the problem clearly stated: Many folks define liberal theology as theology that takes its starting point from experience, e.g. either one’s own cultural-historical values, or (more commonly) transcendent human reason. As a result, they conflate Schleiermacher’s theological liberalism with secular humanism, Enlightenment reason, etc.

While it may be that there are contemporary liberal or post-liberal theologians out there who think theology should or can only be done this way, I would like to contend that they have no [direct] connection to Schleiermacher’s theology. In fact, Schleiermacher doesn’t use the word experience (ErfahrungErlebnis, or Praxis) unless he’s talking about the experience of a feeling (ein Gefühl). What has happened, I think, is that experience has been conflated with feeling, and Schleiermacher’s original use of the word “feeling” has been dropped altogether.

That said, there are two major problems with this conflation:

1) Experience and feeling are quite clearly not the same thing in Schleiermacher’s theology.

2) Feeling isn’t the basis for Schleiermacher’s theology; rather theology is what points us back to the feeling. It is what makes explicit an implicit feeling and helps explicate how such a feeling is possible.

So before you go around the campus of your seminary tomorrow telling everyone how Schleiermacher almost destroyed theology altogether until it was rescued by Karl Barth, let’s try to understand this complex and fundamental aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology and philosophy of religion.

We’ll begin by recovering what feeling is. When Schleiermacher talks about feeling, he does mean pre-reflective sorts of things like joy, remorse, sorrow, etc. By pre-reflective, he is speaking in a phenomenological sense (or proto-phenomenological if you prefer.) He means embodied feelings that are prior to thought. But these, according to Schleiermacher, are derivative of one single feeling: What he calls the feeling of absolute dependence.

Before I get to what that feeling is and what it means, we have to ask: Why feeling? In the wake of Kant, a number of philosophers (Jacobi, Schelling, and Schleiermacher, to name a few) are trying to solve the problem of how the realm of the noumenal (the real) can cause any effect in the phenomenal without resorting to Spinozism. (For the sake of space, I’m going to assume a working knowledge of those concepts. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read a short primer here and here.) Understanding how these two realms are connected was a problem Kantianism couldn’t solve. It seemed as though the only alternative was to turn back to Spinoza who had posited the universe as one Substance (God) with two attributes extension and cognition. Jacobi, et. al. thought Spinozism was pantheistic (which it obviously is) and mechanistically determined (which is far less obvious and certainly debatable) and thus nihilistic (Jacobi invents this term in relation to both Spinoza and Kant.) Determinism, it was thought, leaves no room for moral agency.

Schleiermacher, at the beginning of The Christian Faith (his systematic theology) reconfigures the three realms, outlined by Kant in his Critiques, in which human beings interact with the world (Understanding, Reason, Aesthetics for Kant; Knowing, Doing, and Feeling for Schleiermacher.) He makes the claim that both knowing (theology) and doing (ethics) are important in religion, but they cannot be said to be the most essential aspects of religious piety–that from which religious piety springs forth. Schleiermacher notes that devout piety is quite often demonstrated without much theological knowledge at all; that is, if knowledge were the most essential aspect of piety, theologians would naturally be the most pious Christians. We know that’s definitely not true. Theology, in fact, does not require any religious piety–it can be completely areligious. Doing is less important to what we’re focusing on here, but suffice it to say that while piety typically leads one to ethical behavior, Schleiermacher doesn’t think that ethics necessarily requires piety–that is there are plenty of ethical people who are not religious pious. Therefore, ethics cannot be the basis for religion (as Kant believed.)

Establishing feeling as the basis for religion is a way for Schleiermacher to do an end run around the problem of knowledge and the real while ditching the watered-down religion of Kant. He doesn’t want to deny the existence of a transcendent real (a thing-it-itself realm) in the way that Schelling’s philosophy does as reflected in Schleiermacher’s rigorously transcendent account of God’s attributes. But by making the “I” dependent on the real, he doesn’t have to explain how it is that the “I” could have direct knowledge of the real on which to base a theology and thus a religion. Schleiermacher agrees with Kant that the “I” does not have direct access to the real epistemically, but the real, which must imbue every phenomenal object, can affect us pre-reflectively, and dependence is the primary way in which this manifests.

Why a feeling of dependence? This too is wrapped up in debates of Schleiermacher’s day regarding human freedom and ethics in the face of determinism. Human beings, according to Schleiermacher, cannot be absolutely free, because if we were, we could never have any sense of dependence on anything. That is, absolute freedom is not compatible with even partial dependence. However, Schleiermacher thinks that partial freedom is compatible with a feeling of absolute dependence–even necessary for it. We can exercise freedom to an extent, but this freedom is always delimited by dependence. It is in trying to exercise absolute freedom that we begin to develop the sense that we are actually dependent upon something, and the more this feeling develops, Schleiermacher thinks, the more religious one becomes until one realizes one is absolutely dependent. We can see now that this isn’t just a theory about Christianity–it’s a theory about Religion as such. Schleiermacher thinks this is why it’s possible to have a religion without God. He also thinks that’s wrong, but he understands why some would stop short of positing God and instead contemplate their absolute dependence on the totality of the universe itself.

But the universe is not enough to constitute the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence. This is [partially] why Christianity is the true religion for Schleiermacher. God is the only “thing” transcendent enough to fulfill the role of Whence.  Schleiermacher’s theology proper (doctrine of God) is fascinating, and maybe I’ll do another post on that, but let me just sum it up briefly: God is first and foremost love and wisdom (loving wisdom), that which is pure activity necessarily free and freely necessary, aspatial, atemporal, in whom all that is possible is actual, the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the universe. Agree or disagree, the point is that this is radically not the God of secular reason. The transcendental ego has absolutely no need of this sort of God. God is all but absent from Kant’s account of religion–he’s a footnote (you can read a brief account of Kant’s religion which I wrote here.) There are some similarities between Schleiermacher and Kant (I think their christologies and ecclesiologies are comparable), but they arrive at those from very different places and for very different reasons.

Let’s go back now to theology in general and the notion of starting points. Theology’s role in all of this is to make explicit the implicit feeling of religion in general. Schleiermacher, in his letters to a friend, Dr. Lucke, about The Christian Faith, explains that he would have put the opening propositions regarding feeling at the end of his systematics if he hadn’t thought people would be upset that his system didn’t have a proper climax (i.e. that it didn’t end with an eschatology.) In other words, Schleiermacher thought that the result, the conclusion of any theology is the feeling of absolute dependence and that the task of systematics is to ask what sort of theology there must be to explain the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.

New Year, New Posts

Friends, 2012 was a HUGE year for me (Joel), and before I knew it, the year had gone by, and only 4 new posts were made to A Church Unbound! For any of you who have been wondering what happened, allow me to briefly recap:

In January, I was accepted to Northwestern University to earn a PhD in Religious Studies. As more responses from other schools came back, it became clear that Northwestern was going to be the place for me. In May, I announced my departure to the church I served for three years while at Fuller Seminary. This summer was packed with full time youth ministry, preparing for my wedding (married August 4), and moving to Chicago. My wife and I left Pasadena on September 1 and have been in Chicago now since September 8.

Between all of that and beginning the program at Northwestern, I’ve been hard pressed to find time to post things here! This blog never been meant to be anything more than a resource for people to stumble upon and hopefully find useful in some way for engaging meaningfully in conversations about the future of the church and faith. I have some ideas in the works for the blog, and 2013 will hopefully prove to be more productive in the way of continuing to provide those resources!


A seminary education can change a lot. Many I know at Fuller, for instance, have encountered deep personal struggles due to discussions in a class, reading material, or lecture from professors that perhaps hasn’t exactly lined up with or maybe even directly contradicted what they had previously held to be concrete and absolute truth. For instance, with regard to the issue of Foundationalism (see The Chainless Mind Problematic), if we no longer see scripture or belief in God as a foundational, absolute belief, how do we defend our faith or develop doctrine?

I won’t get into the answer to that question here. Rather, I’ll emphasize the fact that a question like this, raised in many courses, can be extremely troubling for someone from a more orthodox or conservative background. And there’s another problem. As I’ve been engaged in discussion with others at Fuller, many have said in frustration: “How do we explain this to people? How is this important to anyone sitting in a pew?”

This problem is compounded sometimes by ill-prepared professors and poorly explained concepts. Once in a New Testament exegetical course, a professor demonstrated the deconstruction of a text. After the professor was finished, a student asked: “Okay, so–how do I preach that?”

The professor replied: “You don’t.”

In my last post, I expressed some frustration with what I and others perceive as a lack of reading among Christian scholars when it comes to postmodern philosophy. This professor’s comment demonstrates that. Not because he said you don’t explain a deconstruction of a text to a congregation—he’s absolutely right about that. But because he left it there. He could have raised the possibility for postmodern philosophy to shape our thinking about how we approach a biblical text to begin with—not that deconstruction specifically, as an act in itself, should.

He should have assured that student that deconstruction is one mode, one small facet of what it means to think postmodernly—it’s not necessarily important for someone behind the pulpit to know how to read a text that way.

Throughout the course of conversation with others, invariably someone will say to me: “You seem to be one step ahead of me in your thinking with this. I feel like I’m still in crisis. It seems like you’re past that point.”

They’re absolutely right. My faith was thrown in the fire and hammered out as I wrote my thesis from 2007-2009 for my MA in English. I was trying to understand how a deconstruction of the word sacred as it’s used in Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions could end up affirming the sacredness of human beings, which is how I read the novel. Deconstruction was supposed to be the thing that destroyed any notions of transcendence whatsoever–at least according to the chair of my thesis committee. I really can’t explain the process better than just to say this: It was a difficult road. But when I came out on the other end, I understood the importance of confronting and wrestling with tough questions, to be able to reconcile my belief while in crisis.

Now I seek out these situations. Not because I want to defeat them like some kind of bully looking for people to beat down in order to exercise some demons, but because I want to refined in the fire again and again.

And in many ways, I think I’m pretty fortunate to have experienced the fire within the secular academy. That fire is expected for a Christian. I wasn’t under the impression that the professors and other students in my program would answer questions the same way I did. But in seminary, that’s a huge expectation, and when it’s not met (and it never should be), it can be frightening.

The conversations I’ve alluded to thus far always seem to end this way:

“But this can be so painful at times. Everything I’ve known and found comfort in has been turned upside down. I don’t want to drag my congregation through the same thing that I’m going through now.”

There are people at Fuller wrestling with an epistemological crisis as I did while I was writing my thesis. That is, they’ve encountered a roadblock in their faith journey—something they’ve run up against that their old tradition won’t allow them to reconcile, so they’re seeking out reconciliation.

I don’t think, however, that this experience is restricted to those in seminary. Death will do it. The death of a child. A parent. A spouse—of anyone before their time, really (and who’s to say when that is?) I also think of Paul on the road to Damascus, blinded by God’s glory, convicted in such away that there was no possibility of return to his old way.

In other words, our congregations don’t have to encounter an academic epistemological crisis in order to wrestle with their most deeply held beliefs about who God is and how he interacts with the world. In fact, I can say without a doubt that I will encounter people as I do ministry who are struggling with roadblocks but who have never read Derrida, Zizek, MacIntyre, or taken a class with Nancy Murphy.

That’s a good thing.

It’s necessary for us to struggle with our faith. That’s the first Beattitude, after all. To be poor in spirit is to struggle with faith. (See Dallas Willard.) God doesn’t want us to get to a place where we’re comfortable, complacent, or satisfied in the sense that we don’t need anything else from Him or that we think we understand Him completely. This doesn’t mean we have to be miserable either. We’ve heard countless sermons on Hebrews or James about being tested and persevering. Just open up to any random psalm and start reading. Faith in God means being uncomfortable in a way that makes us better, more faithful people. Crises don’t have to be walls we hit and never overcome. They’re turning points, allowing us to never see the same way again, just like Paul.

No seminary education required.

by Joel Harrison