On fear and Christian faithfulness

While helping a friend prepare for one of their exams last week, I found myself getting rather frustrated with the portrayal of views the lecturer clearly disagreed with. Their understanding of other views seemed rather shallow, and their criticisms were stock-standard and fairly superficial. It seemed as if they had not really grappled with what was really going on in the subject. They were just on their way to a presentation of an accepted evangelical view, and they chose the path of least resistance.

As I read a bit more, I was driven to thinking about this year, and some of the issues I’ve become aware of. I was reminded of how massive these issues are, and how terrifyingly complicated. Sure, there are guys who take the easy way out and bury their heads in the sand by either denying issues or superficially dismissing them. But this is just cowardice, and is often seen to be so! [To be fair, this is not what the lecturer usually does – he was teaching a class outside of his area of expertise.]

And to make matters worse, now that I’ve seen how morally reprehensible this easy path is, there is no going back. I am only left with a much harder path before me. And, as I turn my eyes toward it, I’m petrified. If I want to walk that path I have to recognise that there are really (REALLY) difficult questions that everyone is bashing their heads against – even the people who believe the Bible is the Word of God. And I’ve got to face those questions, and try to understand the real issues involved. And look to Scripture, wrestling with the relevant texts. And find various answers, taking into account both the strengths and penetrating criticisms of each view. And, then, before the face of God, I’ve got to take steps forward. I’ve got to develop convictions in this world. Not the world of my forefathers.

It is easy to be patriotic about a world which has passed, for we are the offspring of that world, and we have been reared by its heroes. But those lands which we nostalgically look to held out no security for our heroes. To them, they were entering uncharted territory. They carved the paths for us because they faced the challenges of their day under God. They allowed God to shape, challenge and wrestle with them through his Word.

I ask that God would allow me to be a person of like character. And I thank him for the brave, thoughtful evangelicals whom he has raised up in my day; men of courage, who I can look up to.

Fools and Firebrands (The Ethics of Deceit in Gameplay)

Like a madman who throws firebrands is the man who deceives and says, ‘Just kidding!’
(Prov. 26:18-19)

Introduction
From lying in a game of Survivor in front of millions of viewers in order to win the million dollars, to a dummy pass in rugby for a clear run to the try line: a great deal of gameplay involves deceit to some degree. The question raised is, how much of this is innocent fun and how much is sinful?

We cannot take the question lightly, Proverbs 26:18-19 reads, “Like a madman who throws firebrands is the man who deceives and says, ‘Just kidding!’”. The Bible has no qualms about saying that “lying lips are an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 12:22) and lest we have the idea that the Old Testament is the condemnatory one, “all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur” (Rev. 21:8) sits far within the New Testament. Of course, we must beware of the Pharisaical avoidance of harmless fun for the sake of what is essentially legalism. The question remains though: when we play a game of Mafia at a church social, are we just Christians having a good time or are we fools with firebrands?

Purpose
This essay will construct a framework of three evaluative questions which will provide guidelines by which we can evaluate deception situations arising in games. In my original work, I applied these questions to various situations and if the present reader is interested, comments are welcome but as this is already too long, they have been removed. The cases I originally examined were extreme and certainly not every game will involve such cases but, as Thielicke (1968:460) points out, “only against this background of the borderline cases do phenomena come to light which are generally concealed by the more normal cases”.

Due to the complexity and nuance associated with trying to define terms accurately (especially when with a view to using them as ethical standards1), this essay will not attempt to define “lying”. The subject involves questions of intent, knowledge, method as well as means of communication all of which weigh in to create a complex subject. We can, however, agree broadly that deception occurs in gameplay. Therefore, rather than subjecting a scenario to a cumbersome definition that attempts to take every iteration into account, it would be more fruitful to develop a framework in which to think about deception in gameplay. We therefore turn to three questions by which we will evaluate deceit in games.

Three Evaluative Questions
        1. Behaviour Tolerance and Manipulation:
In Graham Houston’s (1998:54) book on morality in the virtual world, he raises the concern that exposure to the virtual world can cause, “thresholds of acceptable thought or behaviour to be shifted by such experience, so that actions which were repugnant become less so”. In other words, Houston is pointing out a twofold danger of virtual reality: that behaviour which may be intolerant in reality becomes increasingly acceptable after exposure in virtual reality. It is twofold because it leads to both tolerance of deviant behaviour in others, and can also be manipulation towards that behaviour in oneself.

The objection is that the exposure to “Game World” environments deadens our normal reactions to behaviour that would, outside of Game World be unacceptable. A Game World like Mafia or Survivor encourages or even requires players to do things that they would not normally do and teaches them to do these things effectively against the natural inclination to the contrary. It is a combination of the vulnerability of players to this manipulation and the duration of their exposure that poses the real problem. Just as movies receive age restrictions based on their content which has the potential to psychologically affect its audience, Game Worlds have the potential to change the way players think about and react in different situations.

Ultimately, wisdom will play the biggest role in determining whether prolonged exposure to a particular game is giving rise to a genuine problem. It is important, however, to bear this in mind and to consider the vulnerability of the players engaged in the game.

        2. Transsubjective Reality:
Perhaps a more significant point is how Game World ethics relates to “Real World” ethics. Thielicke considers the way reality confronts people in their lives through, for example, work, politics or economics. Ethical problems arise, according to Thielicke (1968:459), “out of our confrontation with reality”. This reality is not the transcendent kind of reality in which we all find ourselves, but the micro-realities of work or home or the pub where demands on our behaviour or manner differ from the transcendent demands of true reality, or “Real World”. “The scope of ethics is thus illegitimately reduced if it is limited only to the sphere of disposition and does not also embrace the problem of that transsubjective reality into which man is thrust and by which the free play of his action is restricted” (Thielicke, 1968:459). Thielicke is saying, for our purposes, that Game World is not outside of reality; Game World cannot escape the jurisdiction of the Real World.

Does this mean that Real World rules out the possibility of Game World? Surely not, it would be difficult to make a case that Christians cannot play games simply because games have their own sets of rules2. In addition, Thielicke’s point is that we all engage in micro-realities with their own sets of rules all the time. Each reality has differing demands on our interaction. For example, Thielicke (1968:545) offers, “Whenever I try to observe the canons of common etiquette I find myself uttering a constant stream of untruths.” His examples culminate in his explanation, “I often say “Goodbye,” a shortened form of “God be with you,” when what I really mean is “Go to the devil”” (Thielicke, 1968:545).

Sometimes Transcedent Reality collides with Subjective Reality. The criticism of “Transsubjective Reality” is, simply put, that some aspects of games are not confined to Game World and so Real World penetrates Game World in some respects. For example, a game in which players are randomly picked to be executed (in actuality), is not merely a game. An execution results in the death of someone in Real World, not merely in Game World: an unacceptable outcome. For this reason, Real World ethics preclude such Game World activity. Transsubjective Reality is saying that the reality in which we live – objective (transcendent) reality (without going down the rabbit hole of what that means) – transcends the subjective realities of game worlds: it is a “Transsubjective Reality”.

In the micro-reality of a game of Mafia, players understand that any other player could be their enemy and so they are all willing to deceive each other3. The evaluation of Transsubjective Reality asks whether the deceit is confined to Game World. A dummy pass in Rugby is clearly a strategic manoeuvre, misdirecting the opponent as a part of Game World. Similarly, we would be hard pressed to find fault in poker bluff since it is a part of Game World. We should note that both these scenarios could, potentially, have significant Real World consequences beyond merely victory or defeat: for instance, substantial financial rewards are associated with both games. The deceit, however, is confined to Game World. In a game of Truth or Dare, however, a deceit may well pervade Real World and so be unethical. To make a judgement on Mafia would be pre-emptive but this will become clearer when applied in the following section. What is important to see is that sometimes, aspects of a game escape Game World and reside, at least partially, in Real World.

        3. Love the Final Ethic:
Having just enumerated commandments in Romans 13 and reaching verse 10, Paul suddenly explains, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour”. “Therefore,” Paul concludes, “love is the fulfilling of the law”. While the question of behaviour tolerance and manipulation investigated the effects of the game on the individual player, we have not yet considered the other players. With a topic that can be the source of great controversy we need to carefully consider the effect of deceit in gameplay on Real World relationships of the players. This is not merely an extension of the previous point: even if worlds are shown not to interact at all and the point is nullified, the biblical imperative must pervade our every thought, word and deed.

To begin with, the biblical imperative demands that we take into account the rule of conscience. Paul tells us that our conscience “bears witness, and [our] conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse [us]” (Rom. 2:15). Therefore, he requires that we submit to the government “for the sake of conscience” (Rom. 13:5). This means that if our conscience decries our deceit, we should not be involved in the game since, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”4.

The ethic of love, though, is not about our own consciences, it is about that of others: love bids us consider the weaker brother. Paul’s discourse in Romans 13 is aptly summarised in verse 21, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble”. I cannot do better than to quote Paul at length, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat [or your deception, though in Game World], you are no longer walking in love” (Rom. 13:14-15) so Paul’s exhortation applies here also, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 13:19).

Finally, Paul says something interesting in Romans 12:17. He has been exhorting the church to use their gifts and in the vein of “living in harmony”, loving “genuinely” and “with brotherly affection” we find Paul urge us not simply to do what is good but to “give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all” (Rom. 12:17). This is interesting because it means that we need to think twice about doing something that brothers and sisters in Christ would frown upon. It is a high calling, especially considering we have weaker siblings but it is the calling to which he calls us.

All this does not mean that no one can play poker any more because it causes one Christian brother or sister to stumble. It does mean that in an effort to love one another and build one another up, we should be willing to forego a game of poker when that brother or sister is in our company. In addition should our own consciences be disturbed by whatever we are doing, we should excuse ourselves from the game without casting judgement on the remaining players.

Some Further Considerations
If I were to write this paper a second time there are some thing I would change. The first is that I now feel that the idea of Transubjective Reality is the only question that is being asked and so it would umbrella the other two questions and undergird the entire project. I also have not dealt with any real criticism (originally I had written something which did not truly deal with potential arguments against this take) and I am considering taking potential criticism more seriously (it is, therefore, welcome below). Some particularly relevant criticisms are: (1) on what basis may we say that game world can ethically exist? (2) rats, this is what happens when you don’t write things down. Of course, this paragraph is simply an appendage for the sake of a blog and so I’m not going to belabour it any further.

Conclusion
When it comes to deceit in gameplay, unless we are to take a hardline and condemn it all, it must be taken on a case by case basis. We have looked at three aspects germane to the consideration of deceit in gameplay and have seen how these considerations help us to determine the morality of deceitful actions in different circumstances. Hopefully now, we can participate in games as mature Christians, assured of our faith and never being found fools with firebrands.

Appendices
I have included a pdf of my appendices: Appendix A explains the games in case anyone is unfamiliar with them. Appendix B lists some interesting case studies.
You can download it by clicking here.

Footnotes

  1. Initially this approach was considered but was ruled out because it is difficult for a definition to account for the nuances of reality. For such a discussion, see Don Fallis’ Lying and Deception (2010:1-22).  return
  2. Although, a strong case could be made against specific games whose rules are unethical. A game of Russian Roulette could be argued to be unethical because part of its rules requires killing someone in Real World. With deceit in gameplay it is harder to nail down. The trouble is that a game cannot have true deception unless deception is not required (otherwise trust which can be betrayed could never be built) and so if deception is not a requisite of the game, how can we argue that the game is unethical? At most we can say that the players are unethical.  return
  3. I have even been witness to citizens deceiving citizens in an attempt to “assist” the citizens who are deceived in identifying Mafia. Ironically, the only real exception to this is that the Mafia don’t deceive one another.  return
  4. Paul is arguing for Christian liberty but not at the expense of conscience specifically in the context of dietary restrictions, he writes that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith” and concludes explaining that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).  return

Bibliography

  1. FALLIS, D. 2010. Lying and deception. Philosophers’ imprint, 10(11):1-22, Nov.
  2. HOUSTON, G. 1998. Virtual morality: Christian ethics in a computer age. Leicester : Apollos.
  3. MARSHALL, J. 2007. “Survivor” ethics: the saga of Dreamz and Yau-Man. [Web:] http://www.ethicsscoreboard.com/list/survivor.html [Date of access: 14 May 2011].
  4. STASSEN, G. H. & GUSHEE, D. P. 2003. Kingdom ethics: following Jesus in contemporary context. Downers Grove, IL : IVP.
  5. THIELICKE, H. 1968. Theolgical ethics: volume 1: foundations. London : Adam & Charles Black.
  6. YIN, T. 2007. “Survivor: Fiji”: ethics and lying in games. [Web:] http://yin.typepad.com/the_yin_blog/2007/05/survivor_fiji_e.html [Date of access: 14 May 2011].

The Limits of Emotional Intimacy between Christians

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22, ESV)

It is the goal of this essay to explore the ethical limitations of emotional intimacy between Christians. For this to be done, we must, of course, understand what emotional intimacy is – this calls for us to forge a definition of emotional intimacy. We shall then mine the biblical data for its positive and negative statements concerning the ethics of emotional intimacy. Due to the complexity of the issue, the purpose of this essay is not to go far beyond this point. The essay does not aim to suggest practical implementation strategies of the conclusions we reach; we shall not go beyond the ethical boundary lines we draw into the life-situations they impact 1.

The basic argument of this essay will be that emotional intimacy is never suggested as sinful – in fact, it is only encouraged. Thus, emotional intimacy is ethically acceptable until it is perverted. We shall, of course, explore a number of these perversions.

1. Locating Emotional Intimacy: the home of friendship.

We reach our first hurdle when we attempt to define emotional intimacy. Smidt (2010) argues that intimacy is basically trust, and so emotional intimacy is concerned with trusting another person with your emotions. L (2011) extends this beyond emotions, and suggests that it is a sharing of your “innermost selves”; it is “unbridled mutual self disclosure”. This in turn leads Anon (2008) to speak of the deep knowledge of another person which is associated with emotional intimacy. The associated Wikipedia article (Emotional Intimacy, 2011) speaks of emotional intimacy involving “disclosing thoughts, feelings and emotions in order to reach an understanding, offer mutual support or build a sense of community”. These are provided as an example that although most definitions bear much in common, there is no widely accepted definition that is specific enough for us to work with.

Yet, because these definitions have much in common, it is fair to say that there is a broad definition that is accepted. This causes us to look for the concepts which are most common to definitions of emotional intimacy. When we do this concepts like closeness, vulnerability and love are in the ascendancy. We shall, therefore, operate on the understanding that emotional intimacy is a spectrum with three determining components: closeness, vulnerability and love.

With this in place we should notice that the biblical imagery of friendship consists of the same three components. According to the DBI (2000), one of the images used to represent friendship is the knitting of souls (see Deut 13:6). This kind of friend, states the DBI (2000), is “a companion of one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, resulting in an intense emotional attachment”. Here the companion’s intense emotional attachment results from the sharing of thoughts and feelings and portrays the idea of closeness, while their familiarity with their friend’s innermost thoughts and feelings portray an idea of vulnerability. The idea of love is also associated with the knitting of souls, and we see an example of this between David and Jonathan (Haykin, 2007): “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1, ESV). Other examples of such friendship can be seen in John 11:5, 11, 35-36 (Haykin, 2007).

‘Love’ is particularly important. This is because ‘love’ is used, in the Bible, to speak of “the deepest possible expression of the personality and of the closeness of personal relations” (Palmer, 1996). Thus while ‘love’ can be used as one item in a subset of our above description of ‘friendship’, it can also be used as a synonym for this same friendship.

At this point a comparative word study, of φιλεω and αγαπη, suggests itself as fruitful. This would, however, be inappropriate, for it is highly unlikely that there is any clear distinction between these Greek words, which are translated as ‘love’ (Palmer, 1996). Furthermore, the Old Testament word אהב is “in every way as broad in its usage as the English word” (Palmer, 1996). Accordingly, we shall not make progress by pursuing such word studies, and so we should not proceed down such a line.

We shall use emotional intimacy to refer to the close, vulnerable and loving nature of friendships.

2. The Call for Relationship: mutual love in the church.

One of the important effects of Christ’s death is the establishment of the church (1 Peter 2:9). The language used to describe the church and its relationships carries with it the ideas of closeness, vulnerability and love. We shall consider each of these in turn.

Firstly, it is not insignificant that the language used to describe the church carries with it connotations of relational closeness (Ephesians 2:19-22). John Calvin (quoted by Morris, 2000), in his comments on Hebrews 13:1, goes so far as to say that “We can only be Christians if we are brethren”. For Christians to call each other ‘brethren’ draws them close as family, and familial closeness does not necessarily equate to relational closeness. Yet, passages like John 17:20-26 show us that this family closeness is marked by the same mutual love shared by the Father and the Son, which includes mutual self-giving, but it also has an aspect of ‘oneness’ or relational closeness.

Secondly, relational closeness implies a measure of vulnerability with each other. It is, however, still important that we highlight the specific biblical statements which call for this kind of vulnerability between Christians. Some of these include: mutual confession of sin (James 5:16); mutual edification (Hebrews 10:24-25); refusal to gossip (Proverbs 17:9); mutual comforting in affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-7); mutual bearing of one another’s burden’s (Galatians 6:2); and sharing of counsel and mutual growth (Proverbs 27:9, 17). Each of these verses calls for Christians to share sensitive information about themselves with other Christians, thereby exposing themselves to potential injury. Consequently, it can be said that Christians are called to be vulnerable with one another.

Lastly, Christians are called to love one another. John 13:35 tells us that the perceivable mark of discipleship is reciprocal love amongst Christians. Thus Hebrews 13:1 calls Christians to “Let brotherly love continue”. The obvious implication of this is that when “people come to believe in Jesus and to become members of the church they are to love all the other members” (Morris, 2000). Yet this love is not static, for Morris (2000) goes on to suggest that one implication of 1 Peter 4:8 is that “believers are to work at making their love for others in the household of faith stronger day by day”.

Therefore it can be shown that Christians are to love, be close to and vulnerable with the church2. This leads to Christians adopting the title “Friends” (3 John 14).

3. The restrictions of mutual relationships.

3.1. These restrictions won’t be found in emotional intimacy itself.

We should, at this point, pre-empt a number of counter points by highlighting that there are no life-status limitations placed on friendships and that the biblical remedy for loneliness is friendship, and not marriage.

Firstly, there are no limitations, with regards to life status, placed upon friendships within the church. No sooner is this point noted than one considers passages such as 1 Timothy 5:1-2. However, what is called for in these verses is appropriate respect and honour for older men and women, and what is denied is condescension and sexual impropriety towards younger men and women (Stott, 1996: 125-126). These categories are not mutually exclusive with friendship. While we should not argue too strongly from the silence on this point, we should bear in mind the lack of restriction with regards to cross-gender friendships. This also applies to friendships between Christians of different ethnic, social, educational and marital status. If we wish to make distinctions at this point we may have to relegate them to the category of wisdom and not godliness. Furthermore, James 2 speaks against excluding Christians, based on their economic class, from the benefits of the new community.

Secondly, the biblical remedy for loneliness is friendship and not marriage. Ash (2003: 117) points out that the “Bible has a great deal to say about the longings of the human heart. This is more pronounced in some places than in others, but there is much about love, friendship and fellowship. It is very striking, however, that almost never are these longings and their satisfaction placed in the context of sexual relationship”. Ash (2003: 118) goes on to argue that this is seen clearly in Psalm 68:6, where God’s remedy for the specifically stated problem of loneliness is not sexual, but familial relationships – “the cure is belonging, security, trustworthy relationships, but not necessarily the marriage bed”. Clark (2009) wishes to locate this cure for loneliness within the church, for the gospel restores the relational ‘nakedness’ and mutual acceptance by making our union with one another a result of our union with Christ.

Thus we have our basis for exploring the limits of emotional intimacy. These limits will not be found in emotional intimacy itself, but will rather be found in perversions and distortions of emotional intimacy. We could perhaps group these as being rebellion against Peter’s call, in 1 Peter 1:22, for our mutual love to be sincere and pure.

We would do well to note the ambivalence of friendship circles; they can lead one toward or away from godliness. The reason for this is that emotional intimacy breeds trust, which in turn leads to one valuing a friend’s suggestions and opinions above any other critical assessment or input (cf. Lewis, 2002:97). Therefore, a high responsibility is placed on those who bear the trust of those close to them: to avoid causing their friends to stumble (Matthew 18:4-6), and to rather build them up in love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25). The catalogue below is really an attempt to flesh out the major ways in which this could happen.

3.2. Privitism: emotional absorption.

There is the danger that emotional intimacy becomes exclusively private. It must be acknowledged that we are unable to reach deep emotional intimacy with an unlimited number of people, for each friendship demands time, and we are finite creatures. There will naturally then be groupings of those who are more emotionally intimate. However, these friendship circles cannot become insular or they begin to work against Jesus’ missiological intent for our ‘oneness’, as seen in John 17:20-21. It is in light of this that we should heed Lewis’ (2002: 73) wisdom that Friends are those who stand, “not face to face, absorbed in each other, but side to side, absorbed in a common interest”: the extension and edification of the church.

3.3. Idolatry: the fear of man.

The fear of man is otherwise known as peer pressure, or co-dependency. Welch (1997: 40) says that a person knows they are a co-dependent when they “are more concerned about looking stupid (a fear of people) than [they] are about acting sinfully (fear of the Lord)”. Thus we can say that this fear is reverence, which leads to submission to the explicit or perceived desires of individuals. It is appropriate to refer to this kind of reverence as idolatry. Further, this type of idolatry can be expressed in one particular relationship, a group of relationships (i.e. family relationships) or all relationships. Welch (1997: 24-40) argues that the reasons for one fearing people include fear of being exposed, humiliated or rejected.

Jesus presents a cutting response to this perversion of emotional intimacy. To the person who has higher reverence for people than God, Jesus says: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, ESV). Consequently we must trample under foot any emotional intimacy to which we give idolatrous reverence.

3.4. Sexuality: sexual intimacy.

One of the major issues to be concerned about when developing any deep level of emotional intimacy is the inclusion of sexual intimacy. Grenz (1998: 98-103) argues that the only proper context for sexual intimacy is “the permanent, monogamous relationship called marriage”3. However, sexual intimacy extends far beyond the physical act of coitus. Collins (2007: 340) asserts, “Sexuality pervades all of life and ranges from mild feelings of pleasure about human relationships to sensual lovemaking and stimulating orgasms”. Thus inclusion of sexual intimacy into any friendship outside of a marriage relationship must be said to be ethically inappropriate.

Let us be clear on the implications of the above. It is not to say that the potential for sexual intimacy between two people necessarily causes their emotional intimacy to be unethical. This would be to confuse what is distinguished. For “to say that something can be mistaken for, or turn into, something else is not to deny the difference between them” (Lewis, 2002: 88). It is when the intimacy becomes sexual that it becomes unethical.

Neither is it to say that all physical expressions of emotional intimacy are inappropriate. Ryken (2000) states that “Characteristic expressions of this union of hearts are an affectionate embrace or kiss, weeping, gift-giving and vows of loyalty”. Acts 20:37 provides an example of such physical expression to emotional intimacy. Further, Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Peter 5:14 are all exhortations towards physically expressing emotional intimacy. Again we must say that it is when these expressions become sexual that they become unethical.

3.5. Selfishness: Indifference & Apathy:

In John 15:12-13 Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends”. If we take nothing else from this, we must see that Christians are called to love fellow believers. There is a mutual exchange of love between Christians. Indeed, the DBI (2000) correctly points out that, “The proverb that “a friend loves at all times” (Prov 17:17) expresses both an obligation and a benefit. … In the Bible friendship is a mutual improvement activity, honing one for godly use”. This forces Christians to face indifference and pride.

Firstly, Christians cannot be indifferent towards the spiritual well-being of their fellow believers4. The letter to the Hebrews, addressing Christians, says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV). Additionally, Matthew 18:15 calls Christians to confront any other believer who sins against them, and call them to repentance. Therefore, each individual disciple of Christ must have their emotional intimacy marked by attempts to edify and rebuke their fellow disciples. Where emotional intimacy is based on, or formed around, the constant inactivity of one party, whether it is due to indifference or co-dependency (as outlined above), it must be seen as unethical.

Secondly, Christians cannot be proud, and so refuse the encouragement or rebuke of their fellow believers. The exhortations above always have concrete recipients – and where one Christian is called to stir another up to love and good works, there is always another Christian who is being stirred up. This is simply to restate the point which the DBI (2000) made about biblical friendship always being a mutual improvement activity. Thus, when one finds themselves to be recipient of either rebuke or edification, one should be humble and receive this as an essential part of emotional intimacy.

Fowler (2009) helpfully summarises the picture which emerges when he states that we should be balanced in our giving and receiving of edification. Proverbs uses the imagery of two pieces of iron sharpening each other to describe the manner of growth above; a manner of growth which is integral to emotional intimacy. We are called to build one another up, through mutual edification. Therefore, where emotional intimacy is not marked by humility and other-person centredness, it has been perverted and is not sincere brotherly love (1 Peter 1:22).

We are called to build one another up and to sharpen one another. We cannot, then, be self-centred, nor can we be apathetic about a friend’s sin.

4. Conclusion:

In this essay we have seen that emotional intimacy is a spectrum with three determining components: closeness, vulnerability and love. We have also seen that the biblical imagery of friendship comprises the same three components. Further, Christians are called to love, be close to and vulnerable with the church. Thus the church is the home of friendship, and therefore emotional intimacy. It was then argued that the ethical limits of emotional intimacy are not found in some intrinsic aspect but are rather found in perversions and distortions of the purity of friendship. We then proceeded to explore a number of these perversions. Throughout this essay the ethical call has become clear, and it is well expressed through the quotation at the beginning of this essay: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22, ESV). This is the goal towards which we should strive, together.

________________________________________

Endnotes

1 There is, however, an additional attachment (in the email you received) with a number of suggestions of practical areas worth applying these conclusions to. Unfortunately, there was not the time to work through these points in detail. Return to post
2 Bear in mind that emotional intimacy is a spectrum and this does not call for absolute emotional intimacy with every other Christian, yet some measure of emotional intimacy should be present. Fowler (2009) provides a helpful example of this in the life of Jesus: “While Christ was on earth physically, He was not equally intimate with all His disciples. Out of the vast crowds who followed Him, there were seventy whom He trusted sufficiently to send out proclaiming the Kingdom. Of the seventy, He spent the majority of the time teaching only twelve men whom He had personally selected. There was only one family mentioned in Scripture with whom He frequently had fellowship. Only three of the twelve disciples were permitted with Him in His most revealing moments, such as on the Mount of Transfiguration and in Gethsemane. Finally, only one disciple was given the title “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” only one reclined on His breast at the Last Supper: John the Beloved. While on the cross Jesus charged John with the responsibility and privilege of caring for Mary and she was the only person for whom He made special provision after His departure”. Return to post
3 Ash (2003: 211) defines marriage as “the voluntary sexual and public social union of one man and one woman from different families. This union is patterned upon the union of God with his people his bride, the Christ with his church. Intrinsic to this union is God’s calling to lifelong exclusive sexual faithfulness”. Return to post
4 It is worth bearing in mind that these points here can equally apply for reasons such as co-dependency. Return to post

Bibliography:

  • ANON. 2008. Intimacy. [web:] http://bit.ly/nuBnVc. Date of access: 14 May 2011.
  • ASH, C. 2003. Marriage: sex in the service of God. Leicester : Inter-Varsity Press.
  • CLARK, J.V. 2009. Single and Lonely: Finding the Intimacy You Desire [web:] http://bit.ly/qyirtk. Date of Access: 9 May 2011.
  • COLLINS, G. 2007. Christian Counseling: A comprehensive guide. 3rd ed. Nashville, TN : Thomas Nelson.
  • CROFT, S. 2007. Biblical dating: from “hi” to “I do” in a year. [web:] http://bit.ly/pZor9k. Date of Access: 9 May 2011.
  • DBI (The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery). 2000. “Friendship” Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press. Available: Libronix.
  • Emotional Affair. 2011, April 17. In Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Retrieved May 9, 2011, from http://bit.ly/qqrdLd.
  • Emotional Intimacy. 2011, May 6. In Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Retrieved May 9, 2011, from http://bit.ly/qcv6TQ.
  • FOWLER, R. 2009. The Intimacy Trap. [Web:] http://bit.ly/nu6Lkq. Date of Access: 12 May 2011.
  • GRENZ, S.J. 1998. Sexual ethics: a biblical perspective. Carlisle: Paternoster Press.
  • HADLEY, S. 2008. Object of my affection. [web:] http://bit.ly/pLKijf. Date of Access: 9 May 2011.
  • HAYKIN, M. 2007. With a little help from my friends. [web:] http://bit.ly/nqM3S6. Date of Access: 9 May 2011.
  • L, C. 2011. Emotional intimacy. [web:] http://bit.ly/nzb0yc. Date of Access: 10 May 2011.
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How do African concepts of God relate to the God of the Bible?

A.W. Tozer (1994:11) famously suggests that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us”. I believe this assertion to be correct and so the question, “How do African concepts of God relate to the God of the Bible?” is most worthy of our consideration. In attempting to answer this question we will examine their similarities and differences, and then we will consider whether African concepts of God¹ are more similar or dissimilar to the God of the Bible.

At the outset I need to say that one of the major problems in a study such as this is its vastness. Attempting to distill the religious beliefs of about 1 billion people is no small task; especially when these people are at no point static in their beliefs. Thus, in this essay, the only plausible approach is to consider the views which hold a majority.

1. The Similarities Between the God of the Bible and the Supreme Being.

The most significant similarity between the African God and the Biblical God is the fundamental belief in a deity. Atheistic tendencies in Africa are minimal. O’Donovan (1995: 41) goes as far as suggesting that “there is probably no native-born African who is not aware of the existence of God”.

In addition to the belief in deity, the Supreme Being of Africa largely overlaps conceptually with the identity and work of the biblical God. The Supreme Being is personal in the sense of possessing personhood; therefore deity is referred to as a ‘He’ and not as an ‘it’ or a ‘power’ (Gehman, 2005: 319). This personhood is not seen to be manifested physically, but to exist spiritually. Thus, Gehman (2005: 316) succinctly states that, “God has no body; he is invisible”.

The Supreme Being is furthermore perceived as being the creator of the world. Thus everything in the spiritual, and the physical, world is the way it is today as a direct result of his action² (Kato, 1975: 31). Moreover, the Supreme Being sustains this world; that in the sense that he keeps everything which he made in existence at every given moment, and in the sense that he is seen to be the one who provides and protects this world³ (Mbiti, 1991: 49, 52).

From these two beliefs it naturally follows that the Supreme Being is seen as almighty; for he has the power to do anything he desires (O’Donovan, 1995: 41). Complimenting this power, the Supreme Being is seen to have complete knowledge (Mbiti, 1991: 56), to be present everywhere (O’Donovan, 1995: 41), and to be eternal (Nyirongo, 1997: 11).

The Supreme Being is likewise good (Mbiti, 1991: 55). By this Africans understand that God is not only kind, but that he does not do wrong. In contemplating this point Gehman (2005: 320) helpfully states, “Whatever tragedy is experienced is blamed on witchcraft or the living-dead. God is seldom charged with wrong doing in Africa”.

I have opted to not include the concept of transcendence under similarities for I believe it to be an area where African theologians have fundamentally misrepresented African religion, by “‘baptising’ the data in order to project a traditional religion that is compatible with Christianity” (Bowers, 2002: 118). It seems that we need to heed Turaki’s (1999: 149-150) warning to not violate Africa’s holistic view of the world by interpreting the Supreme Being’s transcendence in absolute terms. Rather, it seems that there is less of a chasm between God and the other spirit beings, and that the category used to understand the remoteness of the Supreme Being is not transcendence but differing communal responsibilities (Turaki, 1999: 156).

It is clear that there is much in common between the biblical view of God and the African concept of the Supreme Being. These similarities extend over both the character and the work of each deity. So the question needs to be posed, “Are there any differences between the God of the Bible and the gods of Africa? If so, what are they?”

2. The Differences Between the God of the Bible and the Supreme Being.

There are two major differences between the God of the Bible and the African concepts of God, which I will discuss. I have opted to include fewer differences not because there are not many, but because more explanation is required.

Firstly, the God of the Bible is different to the African gods in that he is knowable and relational. The problem with the African concepts of God is that they go no further than speculation. Indeed, they can go no further because, although humans can pray to the Supreme Being in certain situations (O’Donovan, 1995: 42), he never interacts with, or personally reveals himself to, the people of Africa (Turaki, 1999: 160). By this I am not suggesting that God has not revealed himself through what is commonly referred to as ‘general revelation’. I am suggesting, however, that verbal communication and personal relationship with the Supreme Being are not a reality for the African. Thus, in this area, we observe a stark contrast between the biblical God and the Supreme Being. Since the beginning of time the biblical God has revealed himself through communicating verbally with human beings; in fact, he has done so finally through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4). In this communication he has told people what he is like and he has offered them the possibility of relationship. Thus, the God of the Bible is different to the Supreme Being of Africa in that he is knowable and relational.

Secondly, the God of the Bible is holy and just. Sin in the African worldview is against the community and not against God (Kato, 1975: 42). As a result, it is the community who is most offended, by these social ills, and it is they who take the responsibility to discipline the offender. Nyirongo (1997: 63) helpfully adds, “The responsibility belongs to those who are physically alive, but more especially to the ancestral spirits who are the custodians of the community”. Therefore we clearly see that it is not the Supreme Being who is offended by these social ills. Yet the Bible cannot conceive of the One True God like that. The biblical God says that sin is against him personally (Psalm 51:4), and causes him great offense (Hosea 9:15). Indeed, God promises that he is judging sin now (Romans 1:24) and will do so in a more comprehensive way in the future (2 Peter 3:7). Thus, in contrast to the humanistic view of sin in the African tradition, the God of the Bible is seen to be holy and just.

In light of the two points above, there do seem to be major differences between the African conception of the Supreme Being and the Christian conception of God. Yet, there are significant similarities at the same time. How, then, are we to think about the Supreme Being as Christians? Is their continuity or discontinuity greater, or more significant? Is the African concept of God an effective praeparateo evangelica for African Christianity? These are vital questions which we shall now consider.

3. Are The Similarities Or The Differences More Significant?

In reflecting on the world without God’s word, Romans 1:21 says that “although [people] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened”.

From this verse two things are evident. Firstly, Africans do know something about God. Indeed, we must affirm that the Bible is correct when it asserts that God’s divinity and power have been plain since the creation of the world (Romans 1:19-20). Furthermore, due to the nature of the evidence, its scope must be universal; and so we cannot exclude Africans from this knowledge. God has not left himself without a witness in Africa; no, he has clearly spoken through what has been made. Therefore, we must affirm what is correct in the African conception of deity.

Secondly, Africans have distorted their knowledge of God. Although there is much in the Supreme Being which corresponds with the biblical conception of deity, Romans 1:21 argues that this knowledge has been illegitimately expanded and perverted. Therefore, Africa has effectively made its own God. Byang Kato (1985: 32) states this point with great clarity when he says, “Whatever rationalization we may try to make, the worship of gods in Africa is idolatry”. Thus, at the point where revelation from the deity becomes re-creation into a new deity, it becomes impossible to see the biblical God as a continuity of the African God (Turaki, 1999: 160).

Conclusion.

In light of the above it seems that we should affirm the similarities between the biblical God and the African God. These similarities are seen in the belief in the existence of a personal and spiritual deity who is the almighty creator, and the all-knowing, protecting provider. Moreover, he is good, eternal and omnipresent.

Yet, at the same time it must always be maintained that this is fundamentally a different God due to Africa’s distortion of general revelation. Examples of where this difference is manifested are, amongst others, holiness, justice, knowledge and relationship. Yet, these are surface cracks which reveal to us the much greater underlying problem of idolatry. As Christians we must believe that if Africa is to have any hope in God her God must be the God of the Bible. Therefore, we need to be aware of this idolatry and proclaim with great boldness the God of the Bible throughout Africa.

________________________________________

¹ Discussions about ancestors, dynamism and spiritism are important but unfortunately fall outside the scope of this essay. Return to essay

² There is some argument about whether the Supreme Being created ex nihilo or merely organised some type of existing matter. Obviously you will find tribes subscribing to both sides of this argument. Either way, however, the world as we see it today is a direct result of the activities of the Supreme Being and so it is legitimate to say that he created this world. Return to essay

³ However, the dual activities of providing and protecting are not undertaken directly by the Supreme Being. Rather, the Supreme Being commissions other beings in the spiritual hierarchy to undertake these tasks. Return to essay

⁴ In fact, Nyirongo (1997: 16) states, “That God revealed Himself to the pre-Christian African generations cannot be denied. Also that he continues to speak to all the tribes of Africa who have not heard the Gospel can also not be denied”. By this he is asserting that God has revealed himself in a general way through what has been created and in that sense he has spoken and continues to speak to every African. Return to essay

⁵ It is worth noting that most conceive sin to be originally against the Supreme Being, and that is what plunged the world into its current state (Nyirongo, 1997: 61). Return to essay

⁶ It is worth quoting Nyirongo (1997: 16) on this point at length: “That God revealed Himself to the pre-Christian African generations cannot be denied. Also that he continues to speak to all the tribes of Africa who have not heard the Gospel can also not be denied. …The problem is not that God did not speak clearly to the African in the past: the problem is rather what the African did with the revelation he received from God. Instead of positively responding to it in faith, he resorted to idols”. Return to essay

⁷ It is worth bearing this in mind when examining Mbiti’s (1980) statement, “When we identify the God of the Bible as the same God who is known through African religion … we must also take it that God has had a historical relationship with African peoples. … Their history has a theological meaning. … In this case, so-called “salvation history” must widen its outreach in order to embrace the horizons of other peoples’ histories”. Notice that his argument is built on a fundamental continuity between the biblical God and the African God, and thus it is basically flawed. Return to essay

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