Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Apokatastasis as a Framework for Decolonizing the Motive of Missions

Like many churches, my evangelical denomination has work to do to rethink the motives of church mission on the other side of colonialism. Some of this work might be done at the level of eschatology, where it continues to hold exclusively to the view that there is eternal conscious punishment awaiting those who meet death unreached and unpersuaded by news of Christ. My goal here is not to contend with this view in full, but is to see how the ancient hope of Christian apokatastasis, or full restoration, might offer a framework for decolonizing the motive of such missions.

To do this I will outline the motivations conveyed by the Missionary Messages of my denomination's founder, A.B. Simpson, expand them with the picture of apokatastasis provided by 4th century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, and gesture at some suggestive results.

A.B. Simpson (1843-1919) was admirable for many things, not the least of which being his break with the class structures of his church in order to bring prayer and preaching into touching distance with social work among the urban poor. As this extended to distant lands, while it continued to carry the motive of compassion, it also shifted in emphasis. 

In Simpson's Missionary Messages we see the motive for mission is to hasten the return of Christ, and the means is to reach every nation with the gospel in the hope that some individuals will be saved. For this he draws on Jesus’s statement in Matthew 24:14, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world for a witness unto the nations and then shall the end come," which is interpreted to mean:

We are preaching the Gospel not for the conversion of the world, but for a witness to all nations. WHEN WE SHALL HAVE ACCOMPLISHED THIS, HE WILL COME. He has given us the key to the future. He has put in our hands the secret of ages. God’s great chronometer does not measure time by days and years, but by preparations and conditions, and the hour of the Marriage of the Lamb may be fixed by the bride (36, emphasis original).

The analogy is to think like a fiancé who must get all the wedding invitations out as a prerequisite to getting married, but need not wait to receive back all the RSVPs. That is not to say there is no concern for a répondez s'il vous plaît. For Simpson, the Great Commission “contemplates a world-wide evangelization so glorious and so complete that no nation, no tribe, nor tongue shall be overlooked” (24). When unpacking this in terms of missionary urgency, however, Simpson says

It calls us, especially, to look at the nations rather than the individuals of the race, and to see that the unevangelized peoples are the first objects of our care. We are never to rest until this glorious Gospel shall have been proclaimed in every tongue spoken by man, and from every nation there shall be some representatives to herald the coming of the Son of Man (24, emphasis added).

On one hand, this sounds like a cosmopolitan vision of the kingdom of God. On the other hand, the goal is not full reconciliation but personal reunion with Christ, and the method prioritizes proclamation over reception to the potential detriment of the missiological imagination. Potential missioners are led to picture a cause-effect relation between the fulfilled duty of gospel proclamation and the personal return of Christ, such that this task is to be pursued regardless of how many receive the gospel, and any notion of transformation on the part of the sending church is displaced by the imagined transformation of other nations into western ideals (see 87, 95-6, 103-8).

Despite appeals to compassion and unselfishness in these missionary messages, the good will tends to get subsumed under self-concern for hastened salvation. The question that arises is similar to that which Abelard raised in the 11th century when, in his Commentary on Romans 3:26, he said a fuller understanding of the atonement “kindles [us] in love more than a hoped-for benefit [does],” because “our redemption” is not only that we can be freed from sin but is also “that we may complete all things by [Christ’s] love.”

My goal here is not to jump to the conclusion that an eschatology such as Simpson's is inherently or inevitably colonialist, but is to re-imagine this within apokatastasis. When Simpson observes an alternate eschatology in his Missionary Messages he looks not to the ancient view of universal restoration in Christ, but looks disparagingly at the "New Theology" of "liberal Christians", which he describes as a religious pluralism with no need for Christ at all (84-5).

But what happens if the "end" is not only the proselytization of all nations, but entails a fuller reconciliation to God and one another in Christ in the new creation?

For those in the early church who taught it, the hope of apokatastasis rested not in abstracted religious pluralism or in human entitlement, but in the fulfillment of God’s goodness in Christ. As William Moore explains in the introduction to volume 5 of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers:

“Their infinite hopes” and “their absolute confidence” rested “in the goodness of God, who owes it to Himself to make His work perfect." They thought that “humanity was not originally perfect, except in possibility,” such that the grace of God “consists [not in their return to a primal state but] rather in the purging” of sanctification (22-23). 

For Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), this “purgation” takes place both here and now and in the “hereafter,” where “the soul is purified of every vice” to “be in the sphere of Beauty” (449). Because only one thing must be annihilated, namely evil, everything God made good will be perfected in the end (452-3).

Explaining this with reference to Hebrews 11:40, Gregory says the ancients from Abraham onward “ceased not to seek the heavenly country” but remain “even now in the condition of hoping for that grace," because God is providing something better, that they should not be made perfect without us (412). After almost four centuries, Gregory understood the delay in Christ's returning as a time of expansion whereby all that are made to inherit the Kingdom of God will be able to give it its final shape. 

When it comes to the question of mission, then, it is worth noting that for Gregory the hope of apokatastasis leads not to missional apathy but to patient persistence (as per the original context of Matthew 24:14, which was a text about enduring persecution): 

"It would be a foolish man who should seek to hurry on the coming of the fruit-time, when he ought to be sowing seeds and preparing the crops,” since it is only “one’s duty” to place “confidence in the things expected as a prop to lean on, and to purchase for himself, by good conversation, the grace that is to come” (413).

If there is a hint of selfish motivation here, it is curtailed by a recognition that the proselytizer stands in need of further purgation and perfection, which carries on until “the generation of [humankind] is completed,” when there “should take place the restitution of all things” (412). In another text Gregory imagines a divine enlarging wherein “each grows along with each” (453) until the plenitude of souls is reached and there is nothing “deficient" in the human race. 

Gregory does not carry the discussion further, but I wish to suggest that this puts the “healing of the nations” of Revelation 22:2 in an interesting perspective, because not only is one's salvation hopeful of some partial form of it, but remains imperfect and incomplete without the entirety of it.

On this reckoning, Christ is only fully known with the healing of the nations at the end of history, such that those who seek Christ in the meantime must participate in that reconciling work, not only by preaching but also by learning to hear the wonders of God declared in other tongues (as Willie James Jennings has argued in his commentary on Acts 2:11). This puts the missionary in the position of a receiver, and not just a giver, because God in fully known only in the reciprocity of that long-term exchange. The motive for mission is not solely to make Christ known, but to learn Christ from the other.

Reflecting from a “Maskoke postcolonial perpective” on 2 Corinthians 5:17, which says "if we are in Christ, we are becoming a new creation," Marcus Briggs-Cloud writes: "I become excited knowing that as Indigenous Peoples” we might actually look for “an emerging New Creation where our identities as Indigenous Peoples are reaffirmed” rather than "fragmented", as took place under “colonialism and its apparatus, missionization” (Coming Full Circle, 89-90).

As Janet Soskice writes in The Kindness of God, because “our future is convivial and not solitary” (187), we need an “eschatological anthropology in which we are loved, we will love, and we will be made lovely in our Lord Jesus Christ” (181). “We may acknowledge that we are loved by God, but it is more difficult to accept that we will be made lovely; yet this too is implied by the bridal imagery of Revelation” (187). Because mission is participation in the transformative work of Christ to the reconciliation of us all, the "bonds of love" which develop “are not means to [an] end, but constitutive of” that loveliness (187).

Friday, May 28, 2021

Luxury's The Latest and the Greatest: A Tribute to a Neglected Rock Album

Luxury's The Latest and the Greatest was recorded in 1996 after recovery from a tour-van accident that had seemed likely to claim the lives of some band members (as told in Parallel Love, an excellent documentary about the band). The album has all the beauty and pathos of their other albums, but in concentrated form. In a decade of grunge and punk, they put the energy of drums and soaring guitars together with clear and pensive vocals for a sound that was upset and hopeful at once. As such the album 'holds up', which is to say it resisted being frozen in time either by the banality of timeless pop or the immediacy of mere reaction. It gets at the universal via the particular. It is itself. It is very good. 

When I picked up this album in 1997 I was full of the angst and worry which so frustrated my generation's confidence and conviction. As I sat in my dank basement bedroom with false-wood paneling, alone and troubled and wishing I could bust out and find myself, when I put on The Latest and the Greatest it felt like the album listened to me. But somehow it channeled that solidarity and helped me pivot to wonder.

10 songs and 44 minutes long, The Latest and the Greatest starts up with a brooding drum-scape that soon gives way to a bombastic burst of drums and guitar and a lyric about "revolution". The title track strikes an immediate nerve. But once the chorus kicks in and the band is singing "we're the greatest, the world should know that by now", we get the sense there might be some satire here. After brilliant instrumental breaks in the second and third minutes of the song, we hear "life is more than being sexy, and if you learn that, well you learned that from me." Somehow we're having our desire for revolution stoked, exposed as arrogance, and then channeled into something more patient and mundane. That's song one.

Song two From the Lion Within seems to carry on the satire. Back then I could just sense that this band had grown up in trailers like I did, because there just was no way they meant it when they sang "Now that you are free, be what you will be, and have the wonderful world of luxury." Beginning the song with a declaration of intent to "move your soul as well as I am able" seemed to me like a mockery of the worship music scene as well. In any case, the song continues the bracing energy of track one. The guitars and bass and drums are layered with complexity, which is part of why the album rewards decades of listening. There's a lot there. (Incidentally, there's a guitar riff at the three minute mark which I always thought U2 ripped off for Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me--but that song came out in 1995, so I don't know who would win that court case if there was one. If based on song quality, Luxury would sweep the jury.)

The third track Not So Grand mellows out in a hard-plodding guitar riff with melodic vocals over top, but once the chorus hits, the drums and guitar are soaring again and the lyrics are nothing short of arresting. "Am I a lover of being a failure, or just a failure at being a lover?" And then the back-handed slap to society: "No, I have never / Never even changed the world / Though I've been told one thousand times I should want to / But no one has asked me to." If there's better Gen X poetry I haven't heard it. But the song doesn't leave it at that. It also asks "am I too much like Voltaire's Candide?"--which is a remarkable line given the near death trauma the band had just come through. It's a reference to a satirical 18th century novel wherein Candide has been taught by his age to respond to recurring tragedies with the optimist's refrain that "this is the best of all possible worlds", but by the end comes to the more quotidian conclusion that "we must cultivate our garden". 

If that song sits well with the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, the next one seems to have been prophetic. In Metropolitan, beautiful vocals disguise lyrics that are as pointedly scathing of consumerist free-market self-actualization as any of the best punk music of the 70s and 80s. "Love yourself and / Go for the gusto / America raised me, don't you know?" Back then we kids new the jig was up. What was more singable than "If this is the modern world why do I feel so very out of place?" and the outro "The future looks so bright ahead / But I wonder / Will everyone be dead?"

The follow up in track five, The Glory, is incredible. "These pearls of mine / Unknown to all the swine / These pearls of mine / I can see the greed on everyone's mind / And so I'll wait and hesitate / Carry on a little more time / Just to be wise." Growing up in the Boomer generations' shadow it felt like we'd have to wait a long time for our shot, and when we finally got it it was likely to be exploited. This song struck a chord. As the song laments "the glory" over and over it seems to say: look, be wise how you cast your pearls, but let's not kid ourselves, clutching after them is a fools game. "Be wise."

To my ears now, Red Mascara seems problematically to project the foolishness of lust onto the "pretty girl with dark red lipstick", but the magic spell of seduction is a potent force and the song does well to call the bluff and hold out for something more than the shallow "I love yous" mentioned in verse three. At the same time, against the prudish backdrop of the Christian music scene at that time, this song also felt a bit like it was celebrating of the electric current of attraction that otherwise felt out of bounds.

King Me is slow and melodic, with clean electric guitar picking over a methodical drum beat. We hear "Isn't life meant to be lived and loved, and / Isn't life meant to be lived and loved, and / Isn't life meant to never grow old?" Somehow it catches the melancholy fear of trouble in the throat and says dammit let's get on with living and loving anyway. We were the Dead Poets Society generation after all. 

It's followed by Hell or Highwater, which feels like a companion song both in the sense of its sound and its lyrics, which channels that desire to live and love into an ode to the promise of abiding friendship. Before many of us had yet read about the socially-constructed nature of identity, we learned it from this song's final line, almost like a prayer: "please don't betray me and let me forget / who I am, who I am, who I am." This stoked a longing in me back then, for which I think I owe Luxury a debt of gratitude.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an epic which laments helplessness, treasures lost, and the chaotic passage of time, but builds into a climactic burst of energy that gratefully receives caged birdsong as the defiance to hold on to life. Against the backdrop of happy-clappy optimism this echo of Voltaire's Candide is even more explicitly an ode to the determined witness of African Americans, as expressed by novelist Maya Angelou and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the source of the title line.

With the last song The Pearls, we're led by a slow strum and plinking high piano notes to imagine ourselves as pearls who are held from the swine of death's "terrible sea", to taste the fountain of immortality. If it weren't for the songs that went before it it might sound a bit like "I'll Fly Away" escapism, except the pearls that are held fast are the treasures of this life, not some escapist fantasy. The whole thing seems like the denouement to the line from Caged Bird which said "somehow God is good and God is loving". That somehow is perhaps the most devout lyric I've ever sung along to, precisely because it doesn't come up with any explanation, it just goes for it, honestly and achingly, with all the gusto of a late 90s rock band we've hardly heard the likes of since.

For all these ten reasons and more, even though it isn't their latest anymore, I suggest that The Latest and the Greatest may not only be Luxury's best, but unironically one of the great rock albums of our time.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Responding to misconstruals of Ambrose University (with comments on systemic racism)

Last month some concerning things were published about Ambrose University, first in a blog and then in The National Post. While it is not my place to speak officially on behalf of the university, as a faculty member I want to respond to some misconstruals for those who are willing to listen.

 

The news article was written by Tyler Dawson for The National Post on April 27. Its headline says “Black Conservative addresses an Alberta Christian University and a free speech fight breaks out. The by-line explains, “In its apology, Ambrose University said the speech by Samuel Sey, a conservative activist, blogger and Christian who is Black, 'caused severe harm' to some students.” The blog in question is “My Response to Ambrose University”, written by Mr. Sey himself a few days earlier, on April 23.

 

Those headlines set the stage pretty well on their own, but let's be clear: The long story short is that a guest speaker in a worship event on our campus said that there is no such thing as systemic racism, and that such a concept is unbiblical. This undermined the university’s commitment to its students, so those responsible for the event apologized for what was said. The apology was accessible to students on the university website but did not name or defame the speaker publicly. However, this led some to denounce the university in social media and on radio, spurred mainly by the news article and blog. Here I will comment only on the latter two.

 

Let’s begin with the blog. Right from the beginning the university is said to have an “agenda”, which makes it sound as if something insidious is going on. To the blogger’s credit, however, the third time this word is used it actually links to a public statement from the University President that has been on the website since June 8, 2020. There we see not a hidden agenda but a clear position: “Ambrose University stands with those who experience the painful effects of systemic racism and racial injustice.”

 

Whether or not Mr. Sey knew about the university’s position when he agreed to speak at a student worship event this February, it is key to this whole situation. Some seem to think the university is ‘cancelling’ him (as that ambiguous expression puts it), but that is not the case. The issue is that students at a worship event were told that systemic racism does not even exist, and is contrary to biblical truth. That puts the university in a position where it either has to stand by the speaker’s statement or its own.

 

One way to tell whether the university was trying to ‘cancel’ (or publicly censure) the speaker might be to look at whether the apology publicly named him. It did not. This is interpreted by Mr. Sey as “cowardly”, but the omission only underlines the fact that the university is not publicly de-platforming anyone, let alone playing partisan politics in a culture war. As the university statement clarified two days later, the apology was intended to address what was said at the event for those in its immediate orbit, and not to denounce anyone publicly. In my view the apology was clear enough, but once this was publicly re-framed and denounced, it is understandable why a removal and explanation were felt necessary to address the concerns of onlookers. Thus, the university reiterated its commitment to academic freedom and owned up to its failure to include that reassurance in the original apology. Please note, however, that a failure to mention it is not the same as a failure to consider it, and is certainly not the same as a failure to uphold it altogether.

 

The university remains a place for rigorous academic discussion. This includes discussion about the variable manifestations of racism, and the proportion of their importance. It is true that if we focus entirely on the systemic it can be a means of shifting responsibility off individuals, thus enabling the evasion of personal responsibility. But the same goes the other way. Shifting responsibility off systems and putting it entirely on persons can be a way of evading responsibility for social dynamics. Once we know about such dynamics, ignoring them becomes an act of will, and a sin of omission is as much a problem of personal partiality as an intentional sin of commission.

 

I want to come back to some of the particulars noted so far, but will do so by turning first to The National Post, where we find the reiteration of several talking points. In the article Tyler Dawson does well to interview both the speaker and the student council that hosted him. For his part, Mr. Sey claims to have been attacked, and since in his view he is merely saying “what the Bible says on racism”, he calls this an attack on the Bible itself. This may be the kind of reading that makes readers of the Post want to reach for the popcorn, but it’s a pretty serious charge for a Christian to make. If a student made a claim like that in a paper they would need to provide evidence to back it up.

 

The article then says that the apology was “retracted”, which I think is a fair assumption to make, since it was my initial impression of the apology’s website-removal as well. However, the article then quotes from an interview with a student council member, who explains how the apology’s removal from the website was an attempt to rectify what Mr. Sey took to be a public denunciation of himself personally. As noted above, the apology did not attack the speaker but only took institutional responsibility for something he said, so I think the apology remains entirely defensible.  But I also think it is fair to seek clarification whether the university sought to censure anyone’s public platform, and whether it upholds academic freedom.

 

(Such acts of censure can be warranted in some cases, of course. Freedom of speech does not mean everything goes, or that there is no accountability for what we say. There are consequences if we shout Fire! in a crowded theatre, or shout There’s no fire! in a burning theatre for that matter. Freedom of speech also does not mean everyone gets access to every megaphone or platform. In academia there are multiple requirements and accountabilities in place to oversee and evaluate such things, but there’s a parallel to this in newspapers and blogs as well. The National Post has editors who decide what goes to print, and bloggers control what gets posted and approved on their blogs. To be clear, in this case it was not censure but was an institution taking responsibility for something said to its students from its pulpit.)

 

This is where we can begin to get into some further particulars. The article goes on to quote from Mr. Sey’s speech-notes, which include the assertion that the Bible is the “best anti-racist book today,” and that anyone who says otherwise is “completely and destructively wrong.” Again, if I were marking an essay that said this, I’d be asking the student to back up the claim. Otherwise, this is one of any number of logical fallacies (such as begging the question or the straw man fallacy). Why frame the issue that way? Did someone suggest that the Bible is not the best anti-racist book today? I’m not sure the Bible should be evaluated by the criteria of “best” or “better”or is it being implied that the Bible is the only book to read?but this is beside the point since Ambrose continues to uphold the authority of Scripture.

 

To be fair, I can relate to Mr. Sey here. It is easy to slip into rhetoric like that when we are trying to persuade an audience of the force of our convictions. But, as we discuss in homiletics classes all the time, we do have to own up to such temptations, recognize if we have unfairly stacked the deck, and work to speak truth in love. When we teach we should be ready to bring challenging and even prophetic words, but if we are rhetorically manipulative then we should expect to be called on it. At that point we can double down, clarify what we mean, or apologize and correct.

 

Unfortunately, the way Mr. Sey presents the issue forces attendees to either see it his way or be declared unbiblical—even “completely and destructively wrong.” The specifics of this are displayed in the article, where excerpts from Mr. Sey’s speech include mention of biblical passages found in 2 Timothy and James. According to him this is where we find “the Biblical definition” of racism. These verses are well chosen, and there is no arguing against their applicability to the topic at hand—but the problem is that, as he declares them definitive, he also imports an exclusively individualistic interpretation and excludes everything else as unbiblical.

 

It should become clear why the university’s apology was warranted. Mr. Sey reiterates for The National Post that these verses mean there is no such thing as systemic racism, unless someone in the room can “identify a single racist law” in the “political system”. I won’t get into the law-naming game here—other than to say that it is well established that racial bias was embedded in the formation of the Dominion of Canada and continues to manifest in the cumulative effect of that history—but suffice it to say we are already quite a few steps removed from the texts of 2 Timothy and James.

 

Like I said, there’s no doubt Timothy and James inform a Christian understanding of racism. But neither of them rules out its systemic aspect. Even if we define racism as “partiality or bias against someone because of their skin colour,” we can still speak of how this takes both personally intended and systemically embedded forms. These are not mutually exclusive. Systemic problems exist alongside (and feed off) problems of personal animus, and there is biblical warrant for the analysis of both. Along with James 2 (on sinful partiality) we can add 1 Corinthians 11 (on sinful sociality) and be well on our way to a fuller biblical treatment of the issue. We talk about this in our theology classes. The Bible is not being ignored or rejected here.

 

I am happy to give Mr. Sey the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t know about our position statement. In fact, it’s on us as an institution if nobody briefed him (hence the apology). But it's hard for me to understand how he can so unabashedly suggest that our faculty and staff are not Christians who take Scripture as seriously as he does. He jumps to the conclusion that we “didn’t want [him] to preach Christ”, do not “align [our]selves with the Bible”, and instead “preach Critical Race Theory”. These are unsubstantiated charges. The university continues to uphold its commitments to Christ, to Scripture, and to the rigours of its academic disciplines—which includes the study of social theories. Exodus 20:16 says “thou shalt not bear false witness.” I can only ask onlookers and detractors to keep that in mind going forward.

 

(Note: Critical Race Theory is one of many ways of discussing and treating the problem of systemic racism. It is part of the conversation, but that doesn't mean it is legitimate to reduce the conversation to this one relatively misunderstood legal approach and then denounce the notion of systemic racism altogether. Besides, social theories like CRT are not preached, they are taught in relevant classes by professors who have studied them carefully. Since CRT has been widely misrepresented in social media of late, I recommend reading this interview with Nathan Cartagena, this overview by Jeff Liou, or this intro by Brad Mason).

 

Bringing it back to Ambrose’s apology, the issue is simple. The host institution differs with the claims made at its worship event and, out of a commitment to its students, said so. Students who have had to overcome the social dynamics of racialized disregard even to get to university in the first place have a right to expect us to uphold our commitment to stand with them against the perpetuation of such things.

 

To dismiss this concern has more than an emotional affect; it also perpetuates ongoing material harm. When that dismissal is reified in worship and underlined as if it is biblical truth, it encourages racial dynamics to persist unchecked. Such dynamics can tend to go unnoticed by privileged people like me, but are very tangible to those whose voices are drowned out by them. Even if incidents are unintended, racially-infused dismissals pile up and have a cumulative effect, doing harm not only to the person’s well-being and belonging, but to their material ability to disern vocations as full participants in the learning community.

 

But the material effects do not stop there. As a Christian who believes in the gospel of reconciliation, I believe that the conditions which privilege whiteness are also not good for white people. The situation is worse for those students that the apology sought to support, of course, but it is also not good for me if I unwittingly perpetuate those social dynamics which hold back our mutual flourishing.

 

The rest of the article rightly talks about campus vetting processes, and about Mr. Sey’s correct assertion that we should not be afraid to challenge him because of his skin colour. The reason for not mentioning any particulars about the speaker has already been noted above. That said, while fear is not the word for it, I do think it appropriate for a white man like me to be careful not to speak into such issues hastily, lest it be from ignorance or privilege. There is a lot that a person like me can learn by listening to people of colour, not only in conversation but, as I have also often found, through thoughtful books and movies.

 

The National Post article concludes with the suggestion that our institutional support for people of colour seems to “ring hollow”, but I pray this does not prove to be the case. Indeed, that is why I think it is important for us to stand by our apology, and to stand by our President’s statement last summer on our behalf. Despite the article’s last sentence, it should be possible to be allies both with those who experience and oppose racism in its form as personal animus and partiality and with those “who experience the painful effects of systemic racism and racial injustice”. We can be together on this. It is not the university that said we cannot.

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