How do we talk to each other?
by James Madden
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made Him to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
This read is going to be a bit picky and dense, so forgive me. Have you ever read something that sounds really good and true but still feels like it’s a little off? I feel that way about Brene Brown, so I’ve tried to trace out the pleasure and discomfort I simultaneously experience while reading her. There will likely be a moment when you think I’m being too “micro” and a bit mean, but I hope you will persevere and see the payoff near the end; because we are confronted daily with contemporary wisdom that is difficult to integrate with our own commitments as Christ-followers.
So who is Brene Brown? She’s a talented researcher at the University of Houston who studies vulnerability, shame, and the power of human connection. She garnered wide attention from a TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability and has since published a number of books popularizing her years of research. I read one of her most recent books, Daring Greatly, and want to share a profound claim she makes:
Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.
Brown says connection is the meaning and purpose of our lives. Does this fit within the Christian story as presented in 2 Corinthians 5? It can! In a way it is a restatement of Augustine’s famous, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you,” meaning we will never be satisfied until we are connected, love, and belong to God. But this 2 Corinthians passage clearly confirms her claim: to be in Christ is to be connected to Christ and to belong to Christ, and though these verses do not explicitly mention God’s love for us, a Christian reading of them can see that John 3:16 and Romans 5:8 are implicit in the process of our reconciliation to God through the cross.
But would we describe this miraculous happening as mere “connection,” one way among many that we can achieve our purpose in life? It seems we must even if it leads us to places we don’t want to go. For example, if I were to join a gang, connected with the members, belonged as a brother, and trusted that members would lay down their lives to protect me, is that a sufficient demonstration of “connection” and thus fulfilling why we exist? I would think not, even though it fits the criteria of connection, belonging, and love. Of course, Brown would almost certainly not use that as an example of what she is getting at, but it is worthy to consider what types of connections are valid within her statement about our purpose. To say it another way, her abstract statement concerning why we are here is devoid of actual history. It is based on interviews with actual people, but the idea itself is a formula that can be filled with many different combinations, some of which would be less than desirable as just shown. The good news of the Gospel, on the other hand, is rooted in history with persons and intentionality and actual consequences… a real cross and an empty tomb. It is one story, with one main character and one way to eternal connection, belonging, and love. In a sense it is very narrow, but its inclusivity comes from the universal call to anyone who will follow after Jesus. Brown’s statement, on the other hand, is a universalized propositional statement, akin to a fortune cookie with vague morality. What makes it intelligent and succinct as a summation of her social science research is actually what makes it imprecise and incomplete as a philosophy or theology for life.
Here’s what happens in these dialogues with psychology and sociology, and I must defer to Walker Percy’s summation. He says that social scientists will provide profound, accurate accounts for what is happening in the world around us, but then they will covertly assume the role of judge and tell us what we are to do or how we are to think in light of their findings. Both the findings and the directives are rolled together into “science,” undeniable conclusions that are normative for why we are and how we should live. But the truth is that although “science” such as this has many profitable things to say, it has nothing to say about why we are here and the meaning of it all.
One might say, “Aren’t you being overly harsh and taking one statement out of context in Brown’s work?” To that I would respond that I am offering only one of the more salient examples, and limited space prevents me from mentioning more. What is mentioned above is simply a case study for the delicacy and nuance we must engage with as we accept the current day’s wisdom or other popular psychological panaceas. We are always engaging in discussions with other communities, traditions, and beliefs; we must recognize as best we can when we are in dialogue and when we are uncritically appropriating worldly explanations of how we are to live and why we are here.
But here’s the messy part. I really like Brene Brown. I have integrated her priceless insights into my own life, relationships, and ministry with Reformed University Fellowship at SMU. Her descriptions of how shame operates and the power of vulnerability are transformative. The way she describes how we armor ourselves from true intimacy and vulnerability ring true. I’d love to have her as a friend. And much of her work CAN and DOES fit within the Christian story!
So it’s messy to engage in dialogue with the world. And we are called to be ministers of reconciliation. But this reconciliation is primarily with God through the work of Jesus Christ, through Whom we enjoy eternal union and intimacy. In fact, it is the security through which we might dare greatly, take chances, and be open to vulnerability as we challenge other beliefs. But to do so requires that we acknowledge from where we begin our dialogues with the world. We begin in faith as part of a community that grounds our reason, hope, and explanation for existence in Jesus Christ, the Word, the Logos. We believe that the Bible is God’s special revelation, specifically recording Jesus’s words for us today. We must live in this space and lovingly affirm what is true into the Christian story while simultaneously calling out what is false.
Can the Christian story explain Brene Brown’s research better than Brene Brown can?1 In short, yes. To quote British Missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, “Insofar as my own participation in the Christian tradition is healthy and vigorous, both in thought and in practice, I shall be equipped for the external dialogue with the other tradition.” We must know our Bible, situate ourselves in the history of God’s people, and indwell the Gospel story to profitably sift through insightful works like Daring Greatly. Thoughtful engagement is good witness.2
1Alasdair McIntyre unpacks this approach much, much better.
2Consider Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society for a much better, more thorough treatment of how Christians are to engage with the scientific community in a thoughtful manner.