Almana Ger Yatom

Widows, Strangers, Orphans: Journeying with the Poor

Descartes and World Trends or how to live counter-culturally


Descartes represents the apex of the renaissance leading to the industrial revolution, which made science or more precisely scientism the primary bias of the world. It made scientific thinking the main mode of examination so that only things that could be empirically established is true which means only things visible and material are true.

Because of science’s great success, religion also followed and adopted scientism as its own bias so that in hermeneutics and the basic reading of Scripture, Christians follow the Cartesian approach – the either or way, meaning, the opposite of true is false. This is how science advances, by a mutually exclusive proposition.

Niels Bohr, a Nobel Laureate for physics, corrected this. He said, we cannot use the scientific method in religion. In physical things, it is true that the opposite of truth is false. That is how science is built. But in religion, the opposite of a truth could be another great truth.

Scientism has made deep inroads into Christianity not only in hermeneutics but also in spirituality. It is a very narrow view but it is a powerful view because from it we have our laptops and rockets. In the past, the Christian community was rocked by the debate on the search for the historical Christ, a crisis that demanded we flush out from the bible stories or teachings that are only “legends” like the Genesis story of creation in 7 days and the miracles, all of which cannot be proven empirically. Higher criticism forced Christianity to just settle for the scientifically proven Jesus Christ, meaning, the historical Jesus and leave out the legends.

Most Christians treat the gospels Matthew Mark Luke and John as merely stories to entertain kids. When reading the bible, they just jump immediately to the epistles to find the “meat” – the propositional teachings. When we do our bible studies we always begin with, “What does the verse say?” (contrast this with the old way, “what did you feel when the verse was read?”). In time, Scripture became just a text and no longer a person. Being relational was no longer required in hermeneutics.

Evangelical churches are centered on the sermon, and people come to church using their mind and their goal is to learn (build knowledge or accumulate information). In the older traditions (orthodox churches), the center of the Sunday mass is the Eucharist and people come to encounter God as a Person and the people use their hearts instead of their minds, and their goal is intimacy or attending to the presence of God instead of accumulating information.

In the former, when a pastor repeats his sermon he is fired. Members of the congregation feel good about Sunday service when they come out of church having learned something new and if they did not learn something new they felt disappointed. In the latter, the one giving the homily can preach the same sermon over and over again and not get fired. People come out of church feeling good because once again they engaged God and were present to God.

Upon this scientific bias, the world rode into the prosperous modern age. It was also maybe coincidental that America coupled this scientism with its own Calvinist’s work ethics (later, the Wesleyan did the same), which advanced their societies faster and gave them much wealth through sheer hard work (and remember, it was done by the middle or lower class which made it morally justifiable. In that period, the work ethics actually belonged to the poor and middle class because the rich did not need work ethics, they did not need to work. But soon, many of these people grew wealthy and brandished their work ethics as the soul of their bible.

In the book by Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, it is shown there conclusively that the American theology has no wherewithal to address social structural evils like unjust laws and corrupt governments. When confronted with the poor now, they merely see poverty as a personal ethical problem and the solution is their work ethics, i.e. they will train the poor to work harder and harder because they believe everyone has the opportunity to rise up out of poverty like they did before.

Part of the social structural evil is the capitalist pyramid, where 10% of the people of the world own 90% of its wealth. If you have 1,000 pesos in your pocket, you actually belong to the top 1% of the world’s population.

The World Bank has also made a study that showed that the biggest reason why many in the Philippines are poor is because of corruption in government, the oligarchy and the unjust laws. The American theology cannot see this and thus will not work towards redressing the imbalance or in the dismantling of the pyramid. They are very protective of their wealth and thus of the status quo, the present order of things (which protects and promotes their wealth and power).

When the church seeks wealth and power or when it prioritizes evangelizing the rich and powerful in the hope that these people can wield their influence in politics and business to change the world, what the church fails to realize is that at the onset, their desire for change is already doomed. Prioritizing the wealthy and powerful automatically compromises the gospel so that even before the first rich or powerful convert enters the church, the church already lost its power to speak powerfully to the status quo – to speak against injustice or to change the minimum wage, because now, the gospel has been co-opted to protect and promote the status quo which upholds the social structure (laws and businesses) that make their wealth and power possible. That is why Thomas Merton said the church needs to give up her desire for wealth and power and seek to become poor as the majority of the world are.

Christianity needs to address social structural evil and promote just laws and humanize capitalism and dismantle the pyramid for a more equitable distribution of wealth. The bible calls us to question the status quo and to oppose it by being counter cultural.

All that America throws away as waste food can prevent all 25,000 death of children by starvation each year. Work ethics is good but correcting the evil social structures of inequality is also good. Scientism is good but people are not just going to survive with material things, they also need love, relationships, and a higher purpose. The church needs to be counter cultural and that means making people more human and promoting better communities of interdependence.

In seminary, the Cartesian bias is also applied in the philosophy of education. Seminaries follow the same approach, of distanciating from the subject matter so that one is able to maintain a degree of objectivity (and not be subjective). This has dire consequences in religion because students of seminary graduate from the study of theology without being affected by the Scripture they studied. Instead, they develop a sense of expertise over scripture so they end up gaining control over Scripture and consequently over God Himself. Normally, a study of Scripture results in greater and greater surrender of the student to the Word.

Cartesian thinking also promotes a lot of dualism. There are many problems caused by dualism especially when we don’t critically examine dualism and its roots in Cartesian thinking. One is the separation of the soul and the body, the other is the separation of the church and state. Christians also separate their vocation from secular work. I have had many missionaries and pastors come to me telling me that they are quitting their profession or employment to go into full time ministry. They are saying their work as a nurse or as a janitor or as a lawyer is not a godly calling or vocation.

There is also the great divide between politics and church now enshrined in the constitution (copied from the American constitution). The doctrine of the separation of church and state is brainwashing Christians to think that the work of helping the poor is the responsibility of the state and not of the church. Worse, these Christians will look down or discourage us from going into politics or running for political office as though saying, in doing so, we will make our gospel impure because politics is dirty and full of compromises.

The division between body and soul is a really big headache. It is the belief of many Christians that the one will go to the cemetery and the other to heaven. A really astute set of students of Asian Theological Seminary did as their masteral thesis a survey of many established evangelical institutions’ belief about our citizenship (in heaven and on earth). Very simply, it asked these respected institutions in the Philippines whether our citizenship is in heaven or on earth. Majority said it is in heaven. This is the notorious pie in the sky bye and bye theology of the missionaries of old, still alive and well inside the faith of the Filipino leaders. It is a sad condition because it teaches our people that we don’t care about the affairs of this world, all we care about is going to heaven. We don’t care about politics or health care or even about fighting oppression – what is important for many evangelicals is just saving people.

For this reason, many Christians have no concern for present affairs in the world and are of no worldly good. All they care is about going to heaven, which has prompted many Christians to come up with the theology of balancing evangelism with social action, which again is wrong and not biblical.

The only mission of the church is evangelism. By saying it needs to be balanced by social action, we are not addressing the dualism directly but are actually reinforcing it by creating another dualism (evangelism and social action is the new dualism).

Also we are saying social action is a biblical mandate and part of the mission of the church when we know that God has no super agenda to get rid of poverty in the whole world. His agenda is only to get rid of poverty in the church, among believers – to help the poor who are already Christians. This means social action is supposed to be done inside the church and if it works well then it can spill over into the world but it has to start inside the church.

The bible verses on social action all point to helping poor people who are believers already (first and foremost) and only after that, we can help the rest. The verse for example, what you do to the least of the brethren you do to me, is a reference to believers. 1 John 3.17 also refers to helping believers (brethren or brother is interpreted first as referring to believers before it can refer to the generic believer, meaning all humanity is our brother).

Social action is supposed to be done within the church, among the people of God, so that when we have eradicated poverty from within the family of God, God can now boasts to the world that His system is superior to the system (cosmos) of the world.

The dualism arose in the first place because of capitalism, which undermined community in the church by promoting individualism (every man for himself or the Republican slogan of everyman pulling himself up by his own bootstrap and not expect others to help him). Instead of promoting social action within the church and doing it first in the church, evangelical leaders (wrongly) insisted that social action should be done indiscriminately, whether to Christians or to non-Christians. We are to help the poor in the world, Christians or non-Christians (this is wrong). Our priority is the Body of Christ and to this Body we are called to live out the Kingdom, as a demonstration to the world that indeed the gospel works and the world should want it.

Now, there is no more boundary line across which we can invite the non-Christians to come and enter and become part of the people of God (lo ammi).

Our social action is actually condemned to fail because social action means justice and righteousness, equality and compassion, which we are not able to do among us. If it will not work among believers the most qualified people on earth to do sharing and justice, why do we think it will work among unbelievers?

There are many more consequences of this dualism, which has infected Christianity. Maybe one more example is the fragmentation of the person so that he is no more than his mind; he has lost his heart soul and body. Cartesian thinking does not only create a dualism, it also creates secularism, which basically means only reason is acceptable and emotion is suspect. G. K. Chesterton precisely defined insanity not as losing one’s reason but when one has lost everything except one’s reason.

It also means in a larger sphere that only material things are real because only physical things can be proven and empirically established. So besides the dualism we have individualism secularism dualism as well as materialism all coming out of this Cartesian thinking of either-or.

Why is the Christian community in such disarray, so fragmented and broken? We have divided the soul, the community, and the society at large and even God. God cannot act in politics even though we are told that all things must come under the Lordship of Jesus. Only matter exists even though we are told we live by faith and not by sight. We define wealth in terms of accumulation and possession even though we are told that wealth is measured in terms of how much we give.

The effect of Cartesian thinking in the church is to reduce the gospel to its barest minimum. This is the scientific way of atomizing things for analysis. This is how we develop knowledge. So we teach also that the gospel in its barest minimum is to accept Jesus as lord and savior (period). But the bible says we are saved to Jesus and also to the Body. And when we add to the reduced gospel, we are labeled as heretics, we have committed a heresy, we become anathema and get kicked out of the church.

The church is very protective of the individual wealth. Americans value their privacy and their private ownership above and more than obeying Jesus. Individualism is taught as part of the gospel – they say to a new believer, now that you are saved go your way and leave me alone, fend for yourself. There is no more community or body. The terms brother and sister in church is just a label; brother and sister no longer mean we are one family sharing our food and possessions (stewards only). Our society teaches that each one for himself must take care of himself and must not expect others to help him (the slogan of the Republican Party). My wealth is my own. That is why our pastor in Tampa Florida said, Americans know how to give but not know how to share. When we give, the receiver becomes a recipient of our generosity but when we share, we declare to the world that all our wealth belongs to God we are not owners only stewards.

It is more blessed to give so when God makes us rich he makes us rich in order that we can give more. The one who receives, receives a blessing but the one who gives, receives more blessings.

Dualism also teaches that heaven is our destination and the world will perish. Even though we know that in the end it is heaven that will come down and God will dwell among us his people on earth. We teach that only the Word and the souls of men will last but we know that more things will last than just those two. Whatever we do with prayer will last. When we build schools for the poor, this will also last and will endure into heaven in the last day through the fire, though we may not see it in its same form or shape but we will know that it was the school we put up in the slums because it will shine through in the crown that God gives to us as faithful servants in his kingdom. Our good works will be our crown on our heads held high proudly in the kingdom to come.

We must remember that although we may believe passionately that we are preaching the gospel, it may be that we are converting people to become more American than Christian, more individualistic, more secular and more cognitive. Instead of promoting the Kingdom, we are destroying it (one step forward, two steps backward).

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