Saturday, 27 May 2017

‘The Preeminence of (Identity in) Christ’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part ten)

This is the tenth and final chapter of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. Cleveland opens with a summary of her aims for the book:

Ideally, this book has helped you to understand why it’s so difficult for Christians to break out of the pattern of homogenous churches and antagonism toward culturally different others. And hopefully, this book has also helped you understand that the primary problem is that our identities are too small. We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the body of Christ. (p. 177)

The way to do this is to work on expanding our identity—that is, to expand our identity so that whatever outgroups we perceive exist are engrafted into our ingroup. But why is this important? Or, to adapt the first heading of this chapter slightly, why does a common identity matter? Cleveland gives the following reasons.

When they become we, we naturally like them a whole lot more (p. 178). Cleveland writes:

[One] study found that British college students liked French college students more when their European identity was more powerful than their British identity. However, British students rather disliked French students when their identity as Brits trumped their identity as Europeans.
When our common identity becomes more important to us than our smaller cultural identities, former outgroup members become fellow ingroup members—they are treated like one of us and we instinctively like them.
Plus, when we know that they have also adopted an identity that includes us, we like them more. We love it when other people include us in their group because it implicitly tells us that they want to associate with us. (p. 179)

I find all this very resonant within the Brexit context.

When they become we, we’re more open to receiving helpful criticism from them (p. 179). Cleveland explains:

When we see them as fellow group members, we begin to view their resources as our resources and are happy to receive them, even if that means accepting constructive criticism that temporarily stings. (p. 180)

So what can evangelical Christians learn from liberal Christians? Are liberals willing to listen to evangelicals? If our identity is in Christ and not primarily in our evangelical or liberal traditions, then genuine communication and learning should be a very real possibility.

When they become we, we forgive them more easily and are less likely to expect them to experience collective guilt (p. 182). Cleveland points out that

when different groups attempt to reconcile, they must first confront the past wrongs that one or both groups committed. . . . Forgiveness is crucial to healthy crosscultural interaction; before true relationship can begin, forgiveness must occur. Research shows that crosscultural situations that lack forgiveness are dominated by hostility, vengefulness and increased rumination about past wrongs. But we all know forgiveness is difficult to come by. (p. 182)

When they become we, our diversity initiatives will finally begin to work (p. 184). Cleveland observes:

When we idolize our cultural group identity, giving it higher priority than our common group identity, minority group members are not truly invited to participate in the organization as valuable members of the all-inclusive we. Rather, they are invited to participate in the organization as them—subordinate outgroup members and second-class citizens. Until we relativize our small cultural identities and adopt a common ingroup identity, our diversity initiatives are doomed to failure because we will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated. (pp. 184–85)

When they become we, we treat each other better (p. 185). Cleveland comments:

If we are working with a common identity, many of the categorizing processes that were once detrimental to crosscultural relations are neutralized. (p. 186)

Not quite the body of Christ,
but you get the idea . . .
Cleveland stresses that none of this means ignoring or denying our various ethnic and cultural identities and differences. But if our stance is, say, to play the Galatians 3:28 card and say that there is no longer any ethnic difference between us because we are all one in Christ, then we are in danger of allowing the predominant group(s) to assimilate the various smaller groups, where BAME Christians are perhaps expected to be culturally white, or where women perhaps feel the need to ‘become’ men in order to be accepted in church leadership. (This last example assumes that women actually are allowed a place in church leadership in the first place!—some local churches, of course, don’t.) The way forward, Cleveland avers, is to adopt dual identities, where, in a local church context, differences (liberal, evangelical, charismatic, sacramental, black, white, British, American, etc.) are subordinated to the wider group identity, which is the diverse and transposable body of Christ.


Personally, I have valued Cleveland’s insights from social psychology as I’ve re-read Disunity in Christ, and I can only encourage anyone reading my summaries to read the book itself. I believe she has another book coming out soon, called The Priesthood of the Privileged, and I’ll be sure to pick this one up, too.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

A Brief Note on Causal Joints, Active Information, and the God–World Distinction

Sarah Lane Ritchie has recently published a stimulating essay on causal joints: ‘Dancing Around the Causal Joint: Challenging the Theological Turn in Divine Action Theories’, Zygon 52:2 (2017), pp. 361–379. She notes the ‘theological turn’ in divine action and explores the possibility that the existence of a causal joint (a/the place, often located in the quantum realm, where God and the world interact) is no longer necessary. Ritchie looks at Thomism, panentheistic naturalism, and pneumatological naturalism, concluding that while none of these metaphysics is without certain merits, their tendency to ignore the need for a causal joint downplays scientific appraisals of the world and could lead to a conflation between God and the world. If I understand Ritchie correctly, the search for a causal joint is necessary in order (a) to safeguard the God–world distinction and (b) to help explain how an immaterial God affects and/or acts in a very material world.

Personally, I’m not convinced that the search for a causal joint is necessary; not, that is, if we are looking for a particular place where God affects or acts in the world. But it is important, I feel, and relatively uncontroversial, to recognise that the underlying conceptuality of a causal joint is valid—somehow, the immaterial God of Christian confession acts in a world of matter. I had an essay published a few years back where I noted that there had to be some kind of change (for want of a better word) at some point between God speaking and the world coming into existence:

Active information is an insufficiently defined holistic causal principle that is claimed to organize behavioural patterns in physical process. However, it seems theologically appropriate to interpret active information as an instance of divine self-communication. Such an approach has a Christological foundation: the universe is ‘held in being solely by the Logos, the Word and Reason of God, eternally uttered.’ It is the Word of God eternally uttered that is crucial here: the world does not exist until the Word ascribes structure to a formless void already receptive to the immanent presence of God’s Spirit (Genesis 1:2-3). While in a world of energetic causality, sound is a physical phenomenon capable of interpretation as speech, music, explosions, birdsong, and so on; in this instance, the Word uttered is non-energetic but energetically effects. At some point between the Word’s speaking and the world’s hearing, the Spirit is present to communicate the divine life in such a way that non-divine life becomes possible – and not only possible, but able to accommodate the life that births it. Through the action of God’s Word and Spirit, the world welcomes communicative interaction with its triune Creator; and through the incarnating action of the Spirit, the Word is made flesh and acts as a cause among causes in a world of physical process.

‘Is Informational Causality Primary Causality? A Study of an Aspect of John Polkinghorne’s Account of Divine Action’, in Fraser Watts and Christopher C. Knight (eds.), God and the Scientist: Exploring the Work of John Polkinghorne. Ashgate Science and Religion Series (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 33–50 (48); quoting John C. Polkinghorne, ‘Creation and the Structure of the Physical World’, Theology Today 44 (1987), pp. 53–68 (55)

I haven’t re-read my own article or given much thought to what I propose—midlife crises and real life have a habit of getting the way of such scholarly endeavours—but it seems to offer an angle for understanding what a causal joint is, or should be.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

‘Creating Positive Crosscultural Interactions’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part nine)

In the previous eight chapters of Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland has shown:

The majority of Disunity in Christ so far has been to identify the social forces that prevent different groups, even individuals, from interacting positively with one another; but now Cleveland turns her attention to how these forces might be overcome. This chapter is comparatively long and contains quite a few examples of the sorts of practices and enterprises Cleveland envisages will help local churches engage with other local churches. I will not refer to these examples—if you’ve been following and appreciating my summaries of these chapters, then you really should have bought the book by now!—and remain content simply to outline Cleveland’s ideas.

Christena Cleveland
Essentially, in this ninth chapter, Cleveland sees cross-cultural contact as the way to overcome divisions. The assumption here is that while distance creates divisions, proximity leads to reconciliation. The interaction between groups provides the missing details that prejudice otherwise generates and perpetuates. This is possible because positive interaction between groups sees group members as individuals who might not actually conform to the group stereotype, and this, in turn, creates a context in which a common identity can be forged. Cleveland recognises that this is not an easy process to live out, but is sure nonetheless that ‘thoughtful and intentional contact between well-prepped individuals is a key to overpowering long-standing divisions.’ (p. 155). Notice her use of adjectives in this sentence; meaningful reconciliation is not something that just happens. The conditions need to be right for reconciliation to happen, and the cross of Jesus must be central.

It is important, Cleveland continues, that we must be aware of our own blind spots, biases, and prejudices if we are successfully to engage in cross-cultural contact. None of us is free from sin, and we must learn to recognise how our own sinful attitudes contribute to group divisions. But there are also four further elements necessary for positive cross-cultural contact.

First, there needs to be a common goal. The idea here is that our ingroup can be expanded to include outgroups if we have a common goal in sight, a goal that can only be reached through collaboration. Cleveland mentions such enterprises as foodbanks, where different local churches work together to serve the wider community. But I suppose it also means that evangelicals and liberals (for example) should help each other reach the common goal that is Christlikeness.

Secondly, each member of the group should hold equal status. I dare say that most people would agree that everyone should have an equal say on whatever important matters are at hand. But in practice, this does not happen—some group members are always more equal than others. This has a serious effect in local church settings, because behavioural patterns and prejudices found at large in the fallen world are brought illegitimately into the body of Christ which should be modelling the new humanity. Cleveland writes,

Addressing power and privilege differentials often involves rejecting powerful societal norms that support status differences. It also often involves the higher-status group’s voluntarily abdicating its higher status. These are both difficult and potentially painful processes that require individuals to closely examine the ways in which their social identities (such as race, gender, economic status, education level) influence the status, power, privilege and mobility that society affords them. (pp. 166–167).

This suggests to me that it’s not enough to allow lower-status people simply to join the conversation; what’s necessary is for lower-status people to be sought out and invited to join and steer the conversation. Some might label this as tokenism; I’d say it’s correcting balances.

Thirdly, Cleveland stresses the need for personal interaction. Homogeneity assumes that members of our group are all the same and that members of the various outgroups are identical, too (though in a ‘Wrong Christian’ way). But genuine personal interaction with different members of the outgroups will enable us to recognise them as individuals.

And finally, appropriate leadership is necessary for constructive cross-cultural interactions. Cleveland suggests that ministers and other church leaders should be at the forefront of these interactions by modelling what cross-cultural bridge-building can look like. The people with power in any given group should take the lead in acts of reconciliation, whatever these acts might look like in practice. And this can have a positive consequence: ‘When a church member sees his or her leader engaged in a crosscultural friendship, the church member will be more likely to follow suit.’ (p. 173). Thus local church leaders, by virtue of holding higher status, should make a conscious effort to invite lower-status voices to join and steer the conversation.

I admit I am probably succumbing to current sociocultural trends, but I think the concept of intersectionality—as I understand it, and putting it crudely, that each of us is privileged in some ways but not in others—needs more to be taken into account here. It seems that Cleveland herself could be read as making an ingroup/outgroup distinction between the privileged and the not-privileged. But otherwise, I think the implications of what she is offering in this chapter are immense and require many of us, including me, to practise true humility.

Monday, 8 May 2017

When Fake Justice Poisons True Justice

This quotation is taken from a commentary on Hosea 10:3-6.

When heaven is considered empty (‘we fear not the Lord’, 3), words and promises soon follow suit, and justice, so-called, becomes a parody of its true self – no longer towering impartially above the strong and the weak, but earthbound and tortuous, springing from the thoughts and policies of the moment; no longer a force for good and for the nation’s health, but a source of poison. The picture of it as a weed which takes over a farmer’s field (4) provides a startling contrast to the majestic metaphors of height and depth and clarity associated with true, divine justice (‘on high, out of . . . sight’, Ps. 10:5; ‘like the great deep’, Ps. 36:6; ‘as the light’, Ho. 6:5). The accusation is borne out by history. At best, humanism takes its estimate of morality and justice from ground level – from whatever happens to be a society’s current mood and practice; while at worst, tyrants and demagogues equate it simply with their policies and interests. So the false morality strengthens its hold on the community, choking the true values as a wild crop smothers the good growth under its spreading carpet.

Derek Kidner, The Message of Hosea: Love to the Loveless. The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP, 1976), pp. 93–94

Isn’t this highly relevant for the UK at the moment?

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Theology and the Local Church

According to Facebook’s ‘On this Day’ feature, I wrote the following note on 29 April 2009. I find it amazing that I’m still thinking these things through even today.

What is the role of the theologian in the local church? I think it’s a question worth asking.

There appears to be a recognition now in many ecclesial circles that it’s important for Christians to think about their faith, and I do believe that this is good theological practice. But again, I ask: What is the role of the theologian in the local church, the role of the person who has formally studied theology at university or college, who has perhaps gone beyond an undergraduate degree, or who has not sat on his or her studies and continues to read the latest releases by, say, Walter Brueggeman or John Webster? Is the theologian meant to be a gadfly, buzzing around the latest trends that infiltrate the popular mindset (e.g. is the theologian meant to slag off The Shack when it’s an object of praise)? Is the theologian meant to lead worship, Bible studies, or preach? Or what? And how, if someone is a theologian in a formal sense (whatever that in itself might mean), does someone handle the criticism that is implied when no-one really takes you seriously, seeing you merely as a pedant?

(Partly, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, gentle reader, I’m asking the wider question of myself.)

Friday, 28 April 2017

‘Blinded by Culture’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part eight)

It is often difficult for us to know when points of disagreement and conflict are actually no more than escalated cultural threats. Christena Cleveland has already noted how groups, including groups within churches, compete for scarce resources, feel endangered and confused by ambiguity, and fear negative consequences. In this eighth chapter of Disunity in Christ, Cleveland looks at how our cultural perspectives tend to reinforce the so-called gold standard effect, where we believe that our group is superior to their group.

Cleveland notes that ‘it is easy for us to . . . confuse culturally based faith perspectives and traditions with universal Christian truth.’ (p. 139). So, to continue using models of atonement as a working example, we need to ask how far our championing of any particular model of atonement is prompted by the theological culture to which we belong. We might hold to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) as the only or the main way to understand Christ’s death, for example, because we are firmly embedded in a Reformed theological culture. Or we might promote Christus Victor because it resonates with our theological culture’s emphasis on spiritual warfare as an undeniable reality. The issue here is not so much that either of these models is wrong in and of itself, but that our defence or advocacy of any one model of atonement is likely based not so much on its adequacy as a faithful interpretation of particular biblical texts, but on our theological–cultural appropriation of its adequacy. Put more simply, if you sing and hear about PSA every week in a church service, I think it’s quite likely that your understanding of atonement with be or resemble PSA—and this suggests that your theology and your culture are more entangled than you suppose.

Cleveland suggests two reasons for why this happens. First, religion and culture are similar; they both contain the same sorts of dynamics and are therefore difficult to separate. And secondly, our cultural tools (things such as language and our social roles) are transferrable from context to context and so will inevitably shape our religious beliefs and practices:

For example, a person who is raised in a reserved and unemotional culture will automatically prefer worship practices that are reserved and unemotional, and avoid more exuberant or demonstrative practices. And due to the invisible nature of culture, this person can easily be influenced by culture without even knowing it. It’s so easy to see how their culture is influencing them, but it’s pretty difficult to see how our culture is influencing us. Culture is our modus operandi—anyone tracking us can see the cultural fingerprints that mark our religious beliefs and practices, but we lack the awareness to see it ourselves. All the more reason to develop crosscultural relationships with people who don’t share our blind spots and can offer much-needed perspective on our culture. (p. 143, italics original).

Yummy . . . a fine English tradition!
I’m not entirely persuaded of the minutiae of what Cleveland says here—the English are traditionally and stereotypically ‘reserved and unemotional’, but many culturally English Christians are nonetheless ‘exuberant [and] demonstrative’ charismatics. Much depends on precisely what she has in mind when she refers to ‘a reserved and unemotional culture’. But her overall point, I think, is sound. Our cultures shape our worship practices and theological stances. To change the example from atonement to worship songs, we might presume that most hymns are theologically robust and that many modern choruses are vapid, at least by comparison. But how far is this presumption already shaped by a particular ecclesial culture? How far does extensive exposure to traditional hymns alone form our future practices? Will I embrace newer songs and choruses? Or will I simply dismiss them out of hand? Similarly, how should hymns be introduced to a congregation more used to singing the latest worship choruses? Does the existing ecclesial culture predispose the congregation towards updating the hymns, either lyrically or musically, for relevance? Or can traditional organ-led hymnody find a home among the modern worship band? I know that traditional and modern can and do kiss: I recall an instance not so many years ago of receiving bread and wine in a Church of England service where the selected Eucharistic Prayer’s Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy . . .’) was actually a modern chorus being used to excellent effect. Here, arguably two ecclesial cultures—traditional liturgy and modern worship sensibilities—met in unity.

But the question about how our ecclesial cultures incline us towards certain approaches and stances remains. The danger here for Christians comes when (a) we confuse Christian faith with our culture and (b) when we believe our particular culture is superior to all others. This happens, for example, when charismatics believe they are more open to the Spirit or ‘freer’ than traditionalists, or when conservatives claim to be more ‘biblical’ than liberals—or, more sinisterly, when one nation seeks to impose its cultural values on another nation, or on groups within the nation itself, as Christian truth. All these are instances of cultural idolatry.

One of the more important cultural shapings the global Church has to contend with comes from the (generalised) differences between the individualistic West and the collectivistic East. Individualism has arisen in the West during the last few hundred years due to the increasing prioritisation of personal religious experience; Eastern cultures continue to prize and seek the social good. These cultural stances lead to different liturgical and devotional practices: Christians in the West, for example, are more likely to miss the value that comes through, say, confessing sins and receiving absolution from a minister each week in a church service than Christians in the East, or Christians whose faith is consciously shaped by episcopal traditions stretching back through time and space. But the difference between individualism and collectivism also shows deeper and wider dynamics at work:

Differences in individualism and collectivism easily come up when different cultural groups discuss the past injustices that one group’s ancestors heaped on the other group’s ancestors. The Christian from the collectivist culture often says, “Your people did this to my people,” whereas the Christian from the individualist culture often responds with, “I’m not responsible for what my grandparents did.” The collectivist’s socially oriented faith includes the possibility of social guilt and requires that individuals who are connected to oppressors be responsible for sins of oppression. However, the individualist’s individual faith only knows individual guilt and is offended by the idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s actions. (p. 146).

Both stances are correct according to a particular cultural formation. But Cleveland argues that each needs the other to come to a fuller appreciation of reality in which genuine reconciliation can take place. ‘Without this mutual openness and understanding, the cultural disagreement will be perceived as a realistic conflict that further divides different cultural groups in the church.’ (p. 147). Once more, Cleveland suggests that recognition of a wider group identity—in the Church’s case, its identity in Christ—is the first step towards real reconciliation.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

‘Culture Wars’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part seven)

“And so I conclude that Scripture teaches that
we should all kiss each other whenever
we meet. Who wants to go first?”
Some issues forever seem to exercise (western) Christian minds; same-sex marriage, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), and biblical gender roles are but three. None of these is unimportant. It is necessary for Christians to meet together to pray through and discuss such matters in order to come to a consensus that seems good to them and to the Holy Spirit. But all too often, such debates are marked by a lack of grace and hospitality. Why is it that so many of our debates degenerate into hostility? Why are our attitudes towards one another often so vicious?

In this seventh chapter of Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland identifies some theories about and reasons for our poor disagreements.

Realistic conflict theory accounts for group conflict in terms of competition. Each group is competing with at least one other group for a scarce resource. This doesn’t rule out healthy competition: sport, for example, presumes the validity of teams or individuals competing for a scarce resource (a trophy, a title, a record). There will only be one winner of the FA Cup each year. But when the groups are not sports teams but communities negatively affected by, say, an economic downturn, resentment arises and scapegoats are made. Cleveland points to research showing ‘that between 1880 and 1930, the lynching of African Americans increased when cotton prices decreased in the South. This is most likely due to the fact that white and black farmers were competing for the same resource: money earned from the sale of cotton. . . . More recently,’ she continues, ‘research has demonstrated that discrimination toward immigrant groups increases when unemployment levels are high. When everyone is vying for a small number of jobs, people are less tolerant of immigrants’ (p. 124). I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I suggest that the current wave of populism and nationalism in parts of the Northern Hemisphere is largely due to groups competing for the scarce resources of power and prestige.

This sort of dynamic is also present in the Church because although most would agree that having right and/or coherent theology is important, Christians often disagree about what constitutes right and/or coherent theology. A liberal theology of same-sex marriage, for example, might be internally coherent and culturally sensitive but, for many conservative-minded Christians, have no biblical foundation. Or one conservative group’s stance on gender roles in marriage and church leadership might be justified by appeal to a range of biblical texts but deemed pastorally insensitive and biblically selective for another conservative group. It is important, I think, for individual Christians and wider ecclesial groups to discern where the differences between them lie so they can learn how to work together for the sake of the gospel of Jesus. But instead of seeking ways to ensure our relations remain healthy even where there is genuine cause for disagreement, our tendency is to argue vehemently for the absolute rightness of our theology.

There are three main reasons why disagreements in the Church are often so intense, Cleveland contends. First, these sorts of cultural threats increase ambiguity. We have a need to make sense of our environment so we can make good choices that will enable us to thrive. We can do this best when there are no loose ends dangling to cause ambiguity. But exposure to different cultures and positions increases ambiguity. The presence of so many models of atonement, for example, might alarm some Christians because multiple models make cognitive closure difficult. Arguably, it also makes biblical interpretation, and perhaps preaching and evangelism, more complicated because certain verses (e.g. Rom. 3:25) are ambivalent in the original languages and open to more than one legitimate translation—and this, too, prevents cognitive closure.

Secondly, cultural threats confuse. Cleveland notes the so-called ‘black sheep effect’, where cultural distinctions ‘are so crucial to maintaining ingroup/outgroup boundaries that group members have a special hatred for other ingroup members who, for the most part, act like normal ingroup members but do not “toe the party line” on one or two important issues.’ (p. 129). Is this partly why Steve Chalke is so often vilified by some Christians for his positions on PSA and homosexuality? Regardless of the claims about PSA found in The Lost Message of Jesus (2004), I recall that the controversy centred on Chalke, a prominent UK Baptist, and practically ignored the fact that the book had a co-author (Alan Mann). Is Chalke one of UK Evangelicalism’s ‘black sheep’, perceived to be leaving the fold?

Thirdly, the fear of negative consequences affects our behaviour. Cleveland recognises that many Christians are essentially experts in detecting negative occurrences in the Church and warning against them: ‘If you believe or do x, then you’re not a proper Christian!’ Focussing on the negative is a survival technique necessary for sensing danger and staying safe. ‘However,’ Cleveland adds, ‘from a kingdom perspective, it is adaptive for members of the body of Christ to stay alert to positive information about others. In order to stay unified, we need to override our natural tendency to focus on what we perceive to be negative information about other groups and instead stay alert to the positive information that they bring to the table of faith.’ (p. 135). This is incredibly difficult for Christians to do, especially in the light of the pastoral epistles’ insistence on teaching sound doctrine; but Church history has shown that sound teaching arises through critical dialogue—and dialogue can only happen when all parties are willing to discuss and even worship together.

Once more, Cleveland is clear that the way forward is to prioritise our identity as found in Christ rather than in our denominations, traditions, or group allegiances. ‘When we perceive culturally different Christians as fellow members of the body of Christ, we will be less likely to perceive them as threatening competitors.’ (p. 136). So rather than saying that someone is an ‘Evangelical Christian’, perhaps we should say that someone is a ‘Christian from an Evangelical tradition’. Rather than saying that someone is a ‘charismatic Christian’, perhaps we should say that someone is a ‘Christian from a charismatic tradition’. And rather than saying that someone is a ‘liberal Christian’, perhaps we should say that someone is a ‘Christian from a liberal tradition’. This is likely to be cumbersome—but perhaps the clumsiness of such labels will make it possible and encourage us all to focus on our wider group identity as being in Christ. As Cleveland says, ‘Once they become us, they will no longer be threatening’ (p. 136, italics original).