Weekly Thoughts 4

The Appreciative Inquiry into Life

If you look back through my high school journals you will see a guy conflicted between being someone he thought he should be compared with the failure he thought he actually was. Perhaps this is typical of any male journaling their way throughout high school, but part of these sentiments and feelings came from the evangelical strand of Christianity.

Evangelicalism and the reformed brotherhood that has taken hold of its mainstream the last ten years is often spent discussing the comparison of who we are versus who Jesus wants us to be (answer: not who we are). This is even further emphasized by circles who firmly step their feet into the Calvinistic, totally depraved, sinners in the hands of an angry God camp. They spend their time quoting David’s ‘woe is me’ Psalms, Paul’s ‘why do I do what I hate‘ speech, and unleashing more self-hating poems than all the songs featured in Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary.

This theology of deprivation is matched by a God who has chosen each of us, even though he hates us, and thus celebration is initiated. This celebration can be quite deep and some of these people are some of the most grateful people I know. However, some of this can lead to a deep sense of shame within people. We cannot believe that we won’t commit more of our lives to God even though He has done so much for us! (This actually leads to another unique discussion within evangelical circles where Christians feel as if they cannot take credit for any of their own talents, because they, being evil, cannot do any good. So all credit goes to God in everything, even being good at sports!)

With this, the Christian is constantly hounded by a constant pressure of living up to God’s standards (even though by theological grounds they literally cannot); this pressure is even exists in scenarios where people believe that they do not have to live up to God’s standards, but merely should want to – an easy way to lead to guilt accumulation. Small groups and spiritual discussions inevitably lead into this sort of talk where people confess that they haven’t spent enough time with God or that they have committed (insert sin here) lately.

To get to my point, I am going to talk about something else I’ve discussed here before – the idea of appreciative inquiry. Now appreciative inquiry (AI) is an idea meant for groups of people, supposed to spark creativity and new ideas, but I thought I would force it into a personal spiritual situation (if you want to read an academic overview and critique of AI, go here).

AI’s basic viewpoint is that rather than taking things from a negative angle, it is much more constructive to build off of the positive that already exists. Look for the places that are already producing instead of highlighting the deficits and from there you can make something greater. The underlying perspective is that in most communities there is already some sort of life force that is causing it to exist and stay afloat. By focusing on all that is wrong, negative results will come forth.

Before I continue I must say I am going to try to avoid making this a positive thinking piece, where all your problems will go away if you think about good things. I am certainly no Joel Osteen (I dwell in the sadness), but there is something to this. Wracked by guilt for so many years, it feels good to let go of the shame that constantly hounded me. Maybe I’m a character from Dr. Strangelove, letting go of worry of the atomic bomb as it’s about to strike, but being set free from the narrative of total depravity has been a blessing.

Narratives and how we inquire into those narratives affect how we perceive ourselves and our own story. When we continually see ourselves as depraved beings who will never measure up, what will come out of it? When we continually tell our children to pray prayers so that hell no longer hangs over them or exhort them with tales of them being incapable of choosing good, where are we leading them? (Sidenote: In a conflict class I took, we studied an almost completely non-violent society whose strategy of avoiding conflict was to insult their children so that they would not develop an ego, negating any sense of pride or indignation of being treated a certain way, because, well, they were entirely unimportant compared to the society as a whole. So I suppose there could be some merit to this way of parenting, but certainly to a Western mindset it sounds strange.)

Appreciative inquiry posits that when the little micro narratives we hold – that when combined make up our beingĀ  – are changed, the macro narrative will also bend in that direction. When our micro narratives tell us we are incapable of good, generally not worthy of love, and are failures, our macro narrative shifts to one deeply sensitive about a lot of small things.

When are micro narratives begin to tell us that we are capable of good, of making beautiful things, and loving people, perhaps those characteristics will abound. When we become wrapped up in a larger story of mercy, justice, and love rather than one of shame and guilty pleasure our lives will expand into greater things.

I say this all while acknowledging that repentance and humility are two of the most important traits a person can have – we must recognize that we are not more important than other people and when we screw up we should seek reconciliation. But when we ask questions of ourselves, let’s look at the ways we are contributing to life, for we are beings wrapped up in a cosmic tale of love, grace, justice, and beauty. Let us not be overcome with shame at our failures.

Weekly Thoughts 3

Locke, Right and Wrong, and a Theological Imperative

The other night I watched Locke, a 2014 drama starring Tom Hardy. Locke focuses in on one man who makes an instant decision and in an hour and a half car ride sees the results of this decision unfold before him as he works through it in various phone calls.

His decision is one wracked with consequences. If he goes one way many of his problems go away, but he will abandon an ideal. If he goes the other, he will lose everything he loves, but maintain his integrity.

Either way there are consequences.

His choices blur the lines between right and wrong. There really is no way that he can have it all.

Right and wrong will always be taught and insisted upon – rightly so – but when pressed hard enough they crumble beneath us. We hold to our ideals, but there is almost always an exception – a but is found.

Murder is wrong. But there is self-defense. But there is war. But there is Hitler and he doesn’t deserve to live.

Stealing is wrong. But there are poor who need to find food for their children. But there is stealing from the exploitative rich to give to the poor.

If you believe that we are socialized beings then culpability for the wrong we do can even be questioned. The abuser is often one who was abused. The racist usually did not grow up in a place where they were able to interact with people who did not look like them. These people commit wrongful acts, but what if those things had not been done to them? What if.

In the film, his wife tells him that there is good and there is bad and in his decision he chose bad and is now is forced to live with it. Some may say the wife is extra harsh, but she is right that mistakes have consequences. Nobody can blame her for the decision she makes. She takes on the role of the justice system, which lays out that we must punish a crime even if it was committed by somebody who had no other option. Or who was abused. Or is repeating a cycle. A standard must be set, justice must be served regardless of the but.

This makes us turn to a broader sense of justice, one which Martin Luther King Jr. insisted the universe was bent toward. If there is a God who reigns over all, one who is considered the ultimate judge (only God can judge me right?), where does God come down? If anyone could truly tell where the standard was set and where a person’s intentions lied it would be God right?

Of course God could judge all of our intentions weighed against our upbringing in a divine formula He has created and knows the answers to (should we call this GodWAR?) or perhaps right and wrong is not so neatly defined – even for God.

The central tenet of Christianity should be grace. There is forgiveness for all, God sees the games we play, how are lives are complexly fashioned by the people around us, and how the decisions we make are always falling into the cracks of our ethics. Unlike the wife in Locke who acts according to justice, God chooses mercy.

Of course there are consequences in daily life, mercy does not exclude bad things from happening. Justice will occur – in some form.

A black and white color spectrum of right and wrong is too rigid to explain life on earth, I’d rather take Jesus’ prayer – “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”, because we really don’t.

There is no truth but love, no justice but grace.