Category: Theology


I realized today (actually it’s more of an emergent process than that, but today put the words on it) that within the next 10 months or so, I need to make an important decision which, although I can adjust as I go, will in all likelihood substantially bias my work for a good chunk of my life: Am I am big R or little r sociologist of religion?

Anyone who knows me can attest to my hesitancy and unwillingness to make this kind of decision; that’s why I have 4 degrees and am only now starting my PhD program and heading for two more. So what do I mean by big and little R?

A little r sociologist of religion concerns him or herself with the gradual accumulation of knowledge, the successive testing of aspects of theory using whatever data and methods are available to them. Most work in the field is of this sort, and much of it is very high quality and useful. The type of articles and books I review on my companion blog sociofaithful fall into this and can be very valuable both to people interested in the functioning of society and churches and to people with a practical interest in ministry. It is easy to collaborate with others, contribute to the growth of the discipline, and publish frequent and (hopefully) meaningful articles using this approach.

A big R sociologist of Religion, on the other hand, is as much a philosopher as a consumer of data. They are more concerned with the development of theory explaining broader phenomena and working across cultures than with the functioning of a specific cultural manifestation of religion, except insofar as it reflects larger concepts in the theory of religion. If dataheads are the pastors of the sociological academy, theorists are more like systematic theologians, trying to synthesize as much as possible to understand in broad strokes both (current and historical) reality and the sea changes that take place from time to time.

Neither approach disregards the other. Big R sociology without data is just speculation and pontification. Little r sociology without theory is devoid of content and falls closer to journalism (i.e. reporting) than knowledge creation. I love both. I can’t get enough good data to satisfy me, because it is the only way to see what’s really going on. But I can’t help but ask bigger questions than survey data analysis can answer. In the end, I will end up as either a theoretically aware quantitative dude or a statistically knowledgeable theory guy, but the two are still worlds apart.

And even though I am nearly 5 years away from the terminus of my program, the decisions start now, because there is not time to study numbers, ideas, languages, and the history of the discipline all to a level of mastery. If I spend my time studying social thought, I have less time to understand the inner workings of the statistics that are the bread and butter of sociological scholarship today. If I care enough about Japan to refresh and improve my skills in the language, what other opportunities am I missing out on? And while there is much of my life yet, Robert Frost touched reality closely in his famous poem of choosing a path:

[I] Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

Even more than that, I will be adjusting to the habit of producing certain kinds of knowledge whose processes are very different. Certainly at Penn State the natural choice would seem to be the little r; our faculty is among the best in the world at thoughtful, relevant, incremental knowledge production. But who am I? Because I am both, but the two identities are held in tension and not allowing one to grow beyond the other would stymie my ability to participate in ongoing conversations and be useful in creating new ones.

And it goes beyond personal identity to personal vocation and theology. Clearly, I have the ability to produce multiple things. My M.A. thesis is an abstract theological proposal; my undergraduate thesis is evaluative number crunching. But I have to ask, what is the role I have been given in the scheme of God’s unfolding design of creation: a (hopefully masterful) craftsman or an intellectual? In what way am I embodying my Jesus, my God in my world? In the end, the decision returns to the missional question, not in a utilitarian way that seeks to maximize some underlying value that can be quantified and tested against others, but in a contextual way that seeks to answer “What am I doing here now?” I appreciate your shared prayers and I would love to offer mine to yours also. Vocation is one of the deepest, most personal, most meaningful and contextual (and thus frustrating and exhilarating to figure out) aspects of a life of faith. Peace to you in your own call.

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  There are probably as many ideas as to what it means that mankind was created in the image of God as there are people who believe that we were. Nonetheless, I offer one, courtesy of the following section of a Max Weber essay on objectivity in social science and policy:

“The transcendental presupposition of every cultural science lies not in our finding a certain culture or any “culture” in general to be valuable but rather in the fact that we are cultural beings, endowed with the capacity and the will to take a deliberate attitude towards the world and to lend it significance.” (Methodology of Social Sciences [2011] p. 81)

As opposed to the rest of creation, we have the co-creative capacity to lend the world significance through our value judgments and our actions. By the way, Weber was a polymath who is claimed by sociologists and economists, among others, but he was never to my knowledge considered a theologian. Think about it. That is all.

With a title like this, you might think: “Nate’s gone off his rocker. All this rapture talk has turned him into a conspiracy theorist.” Judge for yourself, but I think you will find a compelling case below that we as the church, like the internet, are in danger of over-personalizing our user experience to the extent that we lose sight of both the gospel and the missio dei.

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Solomon, meet Paul

Apostle Paul-MonrealeKing Solomon

In my current Bible reading plan, I am reading through the Old Testament, New Testament, and Psalms each daily for a year (or a little more, after some missed days). Today, I happened to come to the (ostensibly very different) conclusions of two books.

Here are some quotes from the NET text in the key verses:

Gal 6:15 “the only thing that matters is new creation”

Ecc 12:13 “Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole duty of man.”

The way I see it, one of two (slightly wild) things is going on here. I don’t have a final answer, but you can probably judge by the rest of the post which one I’m leaning toward. Continue reading

Union Gospel Mission Seattle

First, listen to the song On a Corner in Memphis by Todd Agnew and let yourself take the words in a couple of times. I’m working on about time 83.

Now think back to the last time you saw a panhandler on the off-ramp, and consider how you reacted. Did you give her money? I’m guessing most of you did not. And one key reason is that you don’t want to be an enabler of drugs, alcohol, or whatever else that person’s pet sin might be, right?

Besides, somewhere along the way, someone probably said something like “You know, if you gave someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish they can eat forever.” Maybe you even listened to the Arrested Development song and are willing to admit it.

In this case, both approaches might be wrong. I want to propose a third way, one that eschews condescension toward our neighbor in favor of love, real understanding, and empowerment. Continue reading

#3 by Ilya Khoteev

My friend Pastor Dean Grier got me thinking about today’s gospel (Mt. 5:1-12, the beatitudes).

Nearly every Christian (and many who aren’t) is familiar enough with this passage they could make up a likely sounding version from their head with just the prompt “blessed are the…..”

I would be willing to hazard that only a very small portion of those have ever stopped to wonder, however, why Jesus, who is on a roll describing all kinds of unexpectedly blessed people (the meek, the mourning, the poor in spirit, etc.) suddenly switches pronouns for his final beatitude.

It’s easy to see in the English and even clearer in the Greek; “Blessed are those/the…” begins every one of Jesus statements in this section but the last. Here’s my thoughts on one reason why he might have done it. Continue reading

I am amazed at the depth and breadth of ministry discussion that happens among Christian leaders online. A recent discussion was initiated by a friend with the status “How does your church define active membership?”* If you’re in a hurry to see what I mean, click this link to the see the entire transcript of the 64 responses on Google Docs. A little discussion of my thoughts on the opening question and some of the other conundrums follows in the rest of this post.

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So I was listening to Metallica on my way home tonight. They are one of my favorite rock bands because:

  1. So much of their music was about something that mattered
  2. They’re bloody good at what they do and
  3. You can actually understand what they’re saying most of the time

This third characteristic caused me to stop (not literally, I was driving) and do a mental double take. I thought they were suddenly channeling Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Let me explain.

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I have a confession to make.

For some time, whenever I’ve really seriously prayed the Lord’s Prayer and sat down with it, it’s rubbed a little wrong.

Not because I think it’s corrupted, or difficult to understand, or male-centric, or anything else I have heard people level complaints at.

No, it’s because of this one line: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone who sins against us.”

Really, the mental conversation goes, I have to forgive everyone who sins against me in order to get forgiveness myself? Even the counselor who encouraged me to destroy my marriage? Even the manager who completely disregarded how her actions affect other people?

Is that really grace? Did Jesus die for that? Because, not to say it wouldn’t still be really amazing or anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make that cut. And I thought God had a little more grand style than that anyway… Continue reading

Random ministry insight of the day: If God blogged, we would be the entries. Period.

Not static pages (like the “About” page), not the theme: we would be the blog and the blog would be us. We are not only God’s hands and feet, but God’s very image and self in creation, and his mission through that self is to bless all of creation.

Wow! The only question is, how do you read?


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