Monday, December 24, 2007

yeah, I said it...

Merry Christmas, everyone! (yes, I respect all other traditional celebrations as well, but really, is this that big of a deal?)

And, a happy new year as well! (depending on which calendar you follow, of course!)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

N.T. Wright at AAR...

One of the lectures I really enjoyed at this year's AAR/SBL conference was N.T. Wright's "God In Public?" Wright is an excellent speaker and always challenges his listeners, and this lecture was no different. He dealt, obviously, with the question of how believers should respond to the issue of God in public, and here is a brief overview.

For over 200 years, says Wright, God was not viewed as being needed in public (as part of public discourse), but religion was kept, by and large, to the realm of private belief. Now that has changed. Secularists still repeating the statements of Voltaire – religion should not exist and it has nothing to say. According to Wright, this has been debunked. Religion continues to prove its value for society and in public discourse. As for Christians, if you take Jesus and Paul seriously, you have to take the question of religion in public seriously.

We must, says Wright, move past the two extremes of secularism and fundamentalism… the enlightenment dualism of God and the public world no longer works. His proposal: returning to the four Gospels. While this may sound surprising, Wright claims that much of the evangelical preaching in the U.S. and England has focused on the Epistles and not the Gospels (while misunderstanding the Epistles!). The Gospels are all, in various ways, about God in public, through the life of Jesus. Wright suspects that the Western world/church would rather eliminate the canonical Gospels than really deal with them.

The Gospels, he explains, are about God reclaiming the whole world for Godself. Of course, we have to ask the question, “which God are we talking about?” Secularists seem to focus on a God who forces his will upon humans, but the point of the Gospels is that God’s kingdom is not a dehumanizing tyranny, but the coming of a God who opposes dehumanizing tyrants. While we as humans only know the dualism of tyranny and anarchy, God’s kingdom is different than both! The Gospels resist our limitations in three ways:

1. The Canonical Gospels are an integrated whole upon which reflection is difficult – the Gospels are often seen as either a social project, or as Christ's Passion narratives with extended introductions! Appeals for an integrated reading have been met with resistance on both sides. An integrated reading of the Gospels rejects the extremes, and tells us that Jesus did release God’s healing to the world, but did it through his death and resurrection. Jesus did not die to save people from the world, but to save people in order to save the world. The narrative read this way resists deconstruction into power games, because it is grounded in crucifixion rather than coercion.

2. The Gospels demand to be read in deep integration with the Old Testament. We do no service when we ignore the Jewish narrative as the story of how God is saving the world through Israel, culminating in Jesus.

3. Gospels integrated present a full picture of the hope of the early Christians, as the final renewal and bringing together of earth with heaven.

Politically, Wright states that there has been a sort of replacement of the resurrection story with the story of democratic freedom. Theological views that rule out the political should be avoided, but this does not mean our political system is God's system. Wright points to Psalm 2: Though the nations rage, God will appoint his own ruler, and we ought to look at the political implications of the nations learning the meaning of God’s rule. Here again he offers three points:

1. The early church did not actually reject the rule of pagans. God wants the world to be ordered, and human order should be involved in making that happen, instead of simply letting the powerful dominate. The New Testament does not promote a disconnect between what the church does and what the world does; rather, it reaffirms the God-given place of secular human rulers. They get it wrong, but God wants them in place, because any order is better than chaos. But how can this be seen in the Gospels?

2. John 19 (and 1 Cor. 2): The rulers of this age inevitably corrupt the order God desires, but Christ’s rule paradoxically heals that corruption, and that actually heals the rulers. In this way, there is both a judgment and a necessity.

3.The present political situation is to be understood in light of the paradoxical Lordship of Jesus himself. Before Jesus, there was a picture in Scripture of rulers who were judged for their wrongs in the present, but now we anticipate the final eschaton, when all is set right.

Now, says Wright, this all may seem a bit silly, given that we live in the midst of what looks like a system that doesn’t match Wright’s vision at all. But, we must remember that the Church is supposed to be the voice speaking truth to power, and our witness cannot be forgotten, ignored, or subsumed underneath a particular political agenda. The church must get on with the work of justice, beauty and healing that the systems know they should do, but can’t figure out how to do. We must collaborate without compromise, and critique without dualism.

We must critique democracy – the view that emerged from the enlightenment dualism that tried to remove God from public. Early Christians didn’t care how rulers came to power, they cared about what they DID in power! We need, as the church, to develop ways to hold governments to account. This presupposes that the church is holding itself to account! We should encourage readings of the Bible that set forth such reforms. Our culture is moving towards a "post-postmodernism" that surpasses both modernism and postmodernism… we must find methods that do justice to both the reality of the text of Scripture, and also the reality of the world in which we live. How can we do this?

One way Wright suggests is this: Take seriously the biblical witness to God in public, for institutions and systems, and find new ways for the full message of the Bible to be heard again. This is not saying that exegesis belongs only to the Church, but rather that it is a common good which we, as Christians, should seek help from all the world in order to discern, even if that discernment then leads us to critique and challenge the world's systems. Instead of allowing our faith to be privatized or hijacked for political or private agendas, it must be lived out in public as a testimony to the way of life offered by Jesus in the Gospels.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

so... here's something that really makes me mad...

Corrupt law enforcement - this should not be tolerated. It just makes me sick...


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

evangelical declaration against torture...

Here is a new article from Christianity Today's Books and Culture which further describes and clarifies the importance of Christians declaring their opposition to the use of torture under any circumstances. And below is an excerpt:

"What really matters is whether evangelical Christians who have committed themselves to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and have submitted their lives to the authority of Scripture will accept the moral legitimacy of our government strapping anyone made in God's image upside down on boards, putting cloth over their mouths, and pouring water down their throats and up their noses with the intention of simulating asphyxiation. Or, perhaps, sticking a knife in a prisoner's thigh, inducing hypothermia, employing sexual humiliation, beating people within an inch of their lives, or threatening them with attack dogs. The ultimate question is whether evangelical Christians have the capacity to say no to such violations of human dignity precisely because we affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord of all."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

wrap up of my AAR experience...

Time for a final post about my AAR experience. So, here's what I did on Sunday and Monday:

Sunday started off with my arriving a bit late to the section dedicated to the thought of Charles Taylor. Naturally, it was packed, and so, after standing for a while in the back where I could barely hear (it didn't help that the mic wasn't loud enough - you'd think they would double check things like that beforehand), I decided to leave.

After lunch, I went to a panel put on by the Society of Christian Philosophers, discussing Stephen Davis' new book, "Christian Philosophical Theology." Having read one of Davis' books for class, I was looking forward to hearing him speak, and he came across as extremely genuine and fair-minded. Not only was he able to respond quite effectively to the criticisms of the panel, he also seemed to exhibit a great deal of humility, something which - lets face it - is not a posture to which most academics are naturally prone. (Having said that, however, I would like to point out that several of the speakers I heard at the AAR conference seemed quite humble and that was quite refreshing to see...)

The discussion among the panel brought to light another issue, one that appears to be extending throughout academic theology as a whole; namely, the issue of intellectual bias vs. religious adherence. In other words, it seems that one party would like all religious study to be undertaken in an environment free of sectarian bias, and another wishes to do theology, philosophy, etc. within the confines of their particular faith tradition. This clash of approaches could most clearly be seen in the interaction between Christine Helmer (a professor of theology at Northwestern University) and William Lane Craig (a Christian philosopher and apologist who is well known for his debates with atheists).

Helmer seemed defensive from the get-go, and criticized the SCP not only for its lack of diversity (she stated that they "have an image problem") but for their perceived unwillingness to approach philosophy and theology from a genuinely objective viewpoint. Although Helmer argued rather strongly that dialogue is necessary between disciplines - a quite valid point - her rather defensive posture seemed rather off-putting and did not fit very well with her own language of dialogue. I was also confused by her proposal, inasmuch as I cannot see how anyone, theologian, philosopher, or otherwise, can truly shed their biases and approach a discussion with complete objectivity. Perhaps this is not what Helmer meant, but the impression she gave was that her way of doing things was more honest than her dialogue partners, and given that this was her first time meeting all of them except Davis, I'm not sure it was the best approach.

Of course, William Lane Craig, as was evident in this session, can be quite abrasive as well - perhaps in part due to his particularly rigorous brand of analytical logic, which does not lend itself well to camaraderie. I wonder if his many years of debating have left Craig with the logical attack as his primary form of communication? At any rate, I cannot fault him for his personality, or for his conviction, even if I didn't agree with all of his points. I do think that there may be a tendency among staunch evangelical conservatives like Craig to see "the defense of the faith" as the reason for all intellectual endeavors, and this mindset seems to me somewhat fear-based and may indeed lead to the sort of unwilling behavior Helmer indicated. But I could not be certain of this simply from one panel discussion.

At any rate, it appeared again to be a case of people talking past each other, both thinking that their approach is obviously the best and not stopping long enough to consider whether the other might have some merit. While I am not certain of this, I got the impression that this divide exists across the academic spectrum, and may even have some influence on the recent decision to split apart the AAR and the SBL. When one side believes that the unbiased study of religion is the primary goal, and the other believes that the sincere study of the Judeo-Christian faith is the primary goal, there is bound to be conflict. I cannot imagine that meeting at a conference is the best way to begin solving this problem, although there is certainly a place for that. Indeed, it needs to be dealt with on a much broader scale, and with more compassion and less hubris on both sides. End of rant. :-)

Anyway, to wrap up:

Later on Sunday afternoon, I attended a very good lecture given by N.T. Wright entitled "God in Public." His primary point was that the enlightenment dualism that separates discussion of God from the public sphere is no longer a valid option, and the Church must take seriously the biblical witness to God in public, and find new ways for the full message of the Gospel to be heard again, because the Gospel is a common good that we, as Christians, should seek to share with all the world, and with their help, not forcing it upon them. To quote Wright: "The Church must get on with the works of justice, beauty, and healing that the systems [of the world] know they should do, but can't figure out how to do. We must collaborate without compromise, and critique without dualism."

I will perhaps write a separate post on this later... as well as a post on the lecture given by Charles Taylor, who gave a plenary speech on Sunday night entitled "Religious Mobilizations."

Monday... well, Monday didn't quite turn out the way I had hoped. I slept in instead of going to a Fuller Seminary breakfast with the guys (which, as it turned out, cost $15! Although meeting Richard Mouw would have been nice...) and got ready to go to the San Diego Zoo, which is something I had been looking forward to. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my previous post, I got a slight misdirection from the hotel staff and ended up missing my bus while waiting for a transit train. So, instead of getting to the zoo around 10:30, I didn't get there until after 12:00. After rushing through the zoo for about an hour trying to see as much as possible, I was getting really worn out (still carrying my laptop bag with me!), and I realized I was going to miss the 2:00 p.m. session I had hoped to attend, so I roamed around the zoo a bit longer, but by this time I wasn't really as excited. I finally left the zoo around 2:30, and it took me over an hour to get to the convention center via the bus and trolley. I am certainly thankful for public transit, but it was far from efficient this day...

So, anyway, after getting back to the conference, I went to an interesting combination session that featured proponents of Radical Orthodoxy and Process Theology in conversation with each other. One of the highlights of that session was getting to hear John Milbank speak - he is an exceedingly brilliant fellow, and that's all I have to say about that. But it was a bit odd watching as the two groups tried to promote their similarities and downplay their very obvious differences - the biggest one being divergent views on the passability of God. Still, I have to say that the genuine attempt at dialogue was a refreshing example of what some people in the other sessions I attended seemed to desire but were unable to achieve. It may not have been fully successful, but I thought it was a worthwhile attempt.

And, that was it... I was totally wiped out from the weekend, so I went back to the hotel after dinner and slept just long enough to be rudely awoken at 5:00 a.m. in order to catch my plane back to Seattle. All in all, a worthwhile experience, a fun - and sometimes frustrating - trip, and maybe, just maybe, a possible glimpse into my future... if I am ever blessed to be a presenter at such an event. Time will tell...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

2nd AAR post... sort of...

Well, it's Monday, and the conference is over for me, I fly back to Seattle in the morning. It's been fun, and very enlightening and educational, but honestly, I'm too tired right now to think about it... today I went to the San Diego Zoo, which would have been fine except that getting there proved to be quite a challenge - let's just say that when you're in an unfamiliar city and you don't know the transit system, and you get incorrect information... well, it doesn't work out too well. Anyway, I wasted a couple hours traveling through San Diego on buses, and waiting for trolleys. But, that's the way it goes sometimes. I'll post more about the actual conference when I get back to Seattle. But, all in all, it was a great experience, and I had a pretty good time.

Monday, November 19, 2007

1st blog from AAR in San Diego...

Update of AAR activities so far:

I arrived in San Diego Friday evening and grabbed a shuttle over to the hotel where I'm staying with three other students
(Todd, Phil, and Josh) from Fuller NW. At the King’s Inn, I found out that my request for a room on the 2nd floor “away from the noise” had paid off: The room where Todd and I are staying is quite a bit nicer than the other room -– a difference I am attributing to the hunch that our room is in a newer addition/upgrade to the hotel. Score!

Saturday: So, here's the short version of the conference -- TONS of lectures by various scholars, both in the convention center and in the surrounding hotels. This means LOTS of walking –- which isn’t so bad, except that I’m carrying my laptop bag with me everywhere, so by the end of this trip, I’m sure my shoulders will feel like jelly-filled donuts... and speaking of donuts... :-) Actually... waffles! The hotel has a great little breakfast joint, called the “Waffle Spot” (hey, the name doesn’t matter if the food’s good). Good stuff, even if it is greasy breakfast food.

Anyway, Saturday... I actually attended several lectures, but one really stood out, IMO. It was a paper given by Brian Robinette from St. Louis University in the Christian Systematic Theology morning session. Brian’s paper, “Transfiguring the Victim,” examined the thought of Jon Sobrino, who, according to Robinette, makes use of a dialectic approach in describing the duality of the victim/victimizer relationship. He points out what seems to be a circular appropriation of violence, whereby the victims of violence often become victimizers themselves in response to the violence they have experienced. In this way, Sobrino makes it clear that we are all in some sense both the victim and the victimizer.

Robinette adds to the thought of Rene Girard, who, in his work, points out that humanity has always apparently needed a “scapegoat” of sorts, an other who can take the brunt of a group’s guilt, fear, or hatred, and becomes the victim of that group in order that the group itself might remain cohesive. But in Girard’s estimation, Christ is the ultimate victim, because Christ is not only crucified by a collective group made up of various sub-groups (religious leaders, political leaders, the crowd), but in Christian theology Christ is also understood to be a victim of humanity’s sin – we are all responsible, in a sense, for Christ’s death. Christ is therefore the archetypal scapegoat. But if Christ is a victim, then God is also a victim of our sin, which leads to Robinette’s statement that God is a God of victims – and that includes everyone, including the ultimate victim, Jesus Christ.

Robinette adds to these ideas the conception of the atonement known as Christus Victor, in which the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ is seen as a final decisive victory of God over the forces of the devil, sin, and death. Christus Victor is the best way, Robinette claims, to assist Christians in understanding both the realization that everyone of us is both victim and victimizer, and the view that the ultimate forgiveness was given by the ultimate victim (Christ) in order to adequately respond to sin and violence. This model can assist us more fully in responding to the sin we find in our world, by reminding us of our own culpability and the forgiveness which God offers to both victim and victimizer. As recipients of that forgiveness, we should see others with new eyes – eyes of hope that both victims and victimizers might be redeemed through the forgiveness offered in Christ.

Other highlights from Saturday:

Attended lectures by S. Mark Heim, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and others, on some of the issues surrounding the critique of the traditional views of the atonement as too focused on violence, and possible new approaches to the atonement. I didn’t agree with everything they said, but it was thought-provoking.

Met briefly with Dr. Kevin Hart about the Ph.D program at the University of Virginia. It sounds like a great school, from what I’ve heard so far... although it’s quite tough to get into! (and ending my sentences with prepositions probably isn’t a good start... hehe!) Dr. Hart was very gracious, and as silly as it sounds, I was actually a bit intimidated by his British accent – there’s something about a British scholar that just seems to say: I’m much more intelligent, cultured, and well-regarded than any American! I dunno, maybe I’m just projecting my own insecurities.

Finally, Sat. evening I went to an Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting panel discussion. It was a response to Dale Allison’s book, “Resurrecting Jesus,” which is, obviously, a new book about the historical veracity of the resurrection of Christ. Allison, who is a Christian and believes in the resurrection, responded to critiques from Stephen Davis, William Lane Craig, and Gary Habermas. It was a case of evidentiary philosophers and a skeptical historian speaking past each other in terms of methodology, but all agreeing that faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a necessity. In other words, although a lot of interesting points were made, I felt that a lot of the critiques were all smoke and no fire. But, I did learn quite a bit, and enjoyed the lively discussion.

Oh, and in the lobby of the Marriott hotel we saw John Schneider (of Dukes of Hazzard and Smallville fame) getting a shoe shine. That was slightly odd. I don't think he was there for the conference. :-)

Ok, that’s it for now... I’ll post about Sunday and Monday soon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

off to San Diego and AAR...

I will be at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this weekend -- and I'll try to either blog from the event or soon afterward with whatever nuggets of wisdom I glean from 3 full days of lectures and panel discussions by many of the world's greatest theologians and professors of religion. I'm also hoping to visit the San Diego zoo while I'm there... Should be a fun time! More to come...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

N.T. Wright on the resurrection of Jesus...

"Grasping the nettle -- proposing, as a historical statement, that the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty because his body had been transformed into a new mode of physicality -- will of course evoke howls of protest from those for whom the closed world of Enlightenment theory renders any such thing impossible from the start. But... The lines of historical enquiry point relentlessly inward to the first day of the week after Jesus' crucifixion. Once you allow that something remarkable happened to his body that morning, all the other data fall into place with astonishing ease. Once you insist that nothing so outlandish happened, you are driven to ever more complex and fantastic hypotheses to explain the data...

Of course, the historian... cannot compel anyone to assent to anything. The historian can take the argument as far as I have taken it, leaving it clear what the options are: either solve the historical puzzle by agreeing that Jesus' body was transformed into a new sort of life, or leave it in essence unsolved by coming up with flights of fancy, which themselves create far more problems.

But at this point the theologian or philosopher... must step in and ask: do we in fact have good grounds for ruling the straightforward solution out of court a priori? The answer to that will depend, of course, on your worldview: on what you believe about God, the world, yourself, and a host of other things. The question is, whether you are prepared to allow that certain worldviews, including the many skeptical ones that render resurrection out of the question, could and perhaps should be challenged, or whether they are set in stone forever."

(from The Meaning Of Jesus: Two Visions)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Christian response to the "war on terror"?

Recently, I got into a bit of an email "debate" with a friend over my disapproval of certain American security techniques (including the practice of rendition) related to the war on terror. My friend responded that these measures are needed to protect America from the threat of another terrorist attack. Since we are both Christians, I responded this way:

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think the reasoning of (apparently) a majority of American Christians is somewhat backward: It seems that the Gospel has taken a back seat to fear. Clearly, the fear of terrorism is a primary motivator in our nations current security policies.

I am certainly not saying that safety isn't important. And I don't think we should abandon attempts to protect ourselves from the terrorists who threaten us. But it seems fairly obvious to me that an over-arching environment of fear leads to actions like the imprisonment and torture of innocent people, and I think as Christians, we are always obligated to stand against torture and injustice, no matter what. But it appears that our president (who also calls himself a Christian) has a different agenda, and while I understand the reasoning, I just don't think that's what Christ wants. It certainly isn't what Christ taught.

To be honest, I am far less concerned with America's comfort and safety than I am with seeking to follow Christ. That doesn't mean I would never defend my nation. I just think that national identity must always remain secondary to living as a disciple of Jesus. That is simply biblical. And a great deal of what the U.S. is currently doing in the "war on terror" strikes me as the opposite of following Christ. Now, I don't expect the government or military to be primarily concerned with Christian ethics. But I do expect Christians to take them seriously... and when it seems that many American Christians are content with the status quo, simply because our president claims to be a Christian... well, I have a problem with that.

I do agree that many aspects of the so-called "Islamo-fascism" are alarming. But I don't think that gives us reason to revise how Christ calls us to live. I might also add that simply appealing to warfare in the Bible is NOT a good reason to say that what our country is doing is OK.

This is the root of the difficulty: How do we, as Christians, balance defending/protecting ourselves, and others, from those enemies who are out to destroy us, while continuing to love those same enemies as Christ did? What does that look like? I'm not sure, but I don't think the way our government responds should be our example.

So, it's a complicated issue, to say the least. I don't think that the current U.S. strategy is really working, and even if it were, it certainly isn't a proper Christian response. And as a Christian, my main concern should be following Jesus and responding the way he would, no matter how many racists, murderers, or terrorists I may encounter. Again, I'm not saying this is easy, or that I have it all figured out. But I do think that we should look for a better way, and not simply acquiesce out of fear for our "national security." That is not a proper Christian response to terror.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

summing up my thoughts on the Iraq situation...

This pretty much sums up my thoughts... (co-opted from an article by Brian Doherty):


Anti-warriors are sometimes accused of wanting the U.S. to lose in Iraq, just so they can be right. Not so. But they do want America to stop waging unnecessary wars.

All the stated goals of this war have been won. Saddam gone, check. WMD threat? No need to speak of it again. Democratically elected government in Iraq? A-yup. (Unfortunately, there's still a lot of cleanup required...)

But judging whether the Iraq war and occupation was a good idea, or the right thing to do, based on the principle that things are (or seem like they soon will be) better in the region than they were before the Iraq invasion treats war as merely a neutral policy tool.

The question preceding any decision to go to war shouldn't be as simple as: "Might some long-term good occur out of this?" The real question before a war needs to be: "Is this absolutely necessary given a fair consideration of the horrors and unpredictability of war, and the purpose of the U.S. military?" (Which is not: "make the world a better place, somewhere down the line, even if we have to kill lots of people on the way.")

Additional comment: I know this is a very complicated issue, and I don't think there are easy answers. But I do think the decision to wage war against Iraq was a bad decision, resulting from the agendas of certain government officials who have been more concerned with promoting their particular vision of "America" than anything else. As a Christian, I cannot support that agenda. And that is why I have been against the Iraq war since day one. If anyone cared to know.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

humanity in "our age"... (thoughts inspired by Kierkegaard)

"In the midst of all the jubilation over 'our age'... there is a hidden note of concealed contempt for humanity; in the midst of the generation's (self-)importance there is a despair about what it is to be human. All, all want to join in, everyone wants to fall under the spell of the totality, 'world-historically', no one wants to be an individual existing human being." - Soren Kierkegaard

What intrigues me about this quote is how apropos it is for our "age" - i.e. 21st Century American society. Over 150 years have passed, and although our Western culture (especially in the United States) has, in principle, appropriated individualism - even to an unhealthy extreme - we remain entrenched in conformity to "the totality" described by Kierkegaard. Although it may look somewhat different (Kierkegaard was primarily responding to the popularized Hegelian philosophy of his time), it seems rooted in the same inability to really grasp who we are as human beings.

We often think and speak as though we are living lives of complete freedom. And we are told by our leaders and our culture that the freedom we experience ought to be experienced by the whole world. But this "freedom" seems to me a false freedom, a freedom which results not from the genuine desire to live a life that is truly "my life", but instead merely reflects the life which, from childhood to adulthood, has been taught to us as being the ultimate goal of living. And what is this goal? Apparently it involves finding and making a life for ourself that centers upon comfort, security, and independence.

Not that any of these concepts are bad in and of themselves. But are they a genuine reflection of what humanity ought to be? Is the goal of the human being - as our society, culture, media, and even our family and friends continually remind us - to get an education, in order to find a good job, in order to provide financially for a family (which means finding a wife, and having some kids) and make sure that your offspring have those same opportunities?

Is the goal to live our lives in such a way that we maximize personal accomplishment and experience? Again, surely these are all wonderful things, not to be despised... but are they the goal? Most of us who call ourselves Christians would quickly and loudly say "No!" But do we really believe our own words?

These are not just hypotheticals; this is our day-to-day experience. Each day we wake up, go to work or school, spend time with friends or family, think about preparing for the future... and are we really that different from the people in Kierkegaard's time? Are we not, like they were, quietly despairing of "what it is to be human"? How many times do we push aside that little voice that says, "there is more to life than this," because we are afraid of what might happen if we actually listened? Certainly, we have responsibilities and we must not live foolishly, but I think that, on a deeper level, the reason we so often ignore that voice is because we really don't believe that there is more to life.

We say that serving others and living simply and following Christ no matter what are primary, but deep down we doubt it. We doubt it because nearly everything in our world and in our psyche is telling us that what really matters is comfort, security, and independence. And too often we choose to remain in that reality because it is, after all, the reality of "the totality" -- everywhere we turn, we are given practical, logical, and even moral reasons why it is good to live in that world.

The only problem is, Christ tells us something different. And Kierkegaard recognized what we, I think, also implicitly recognize: that following Christ is a totally different way of life. It means the rejection of a certain set of guidelines and the decision to live according to principles that, for the totality of humanity, will seem utterly backward and ridiculous.

And that is why only an individual - one who has given up the totality and surrendered to the subjectivity that exists between God and that one person - is able to make the "leap of faith" required of such a life. Certainly, I believe there are many people who are living the life Christ offers, to greater or lesser degrees. I am not passing judgment on anyone, since I am, more often than not, trapped in the totality myself. And there is more to this picture: the Church, for example, ought to be primarily the community of individuals which provides guidance and support for all who are seeking to genuinely live life in Christ, instead of (often) just another mouthpiece for the totality.

But for now, I am asking myself how I can take steps in my own life to stretch beyond what I have been conditioned to accept as the goal of life, and I pray that I will be given the strength to keep moving in that direction... it is a slow process, but I believe it is necessary for each of us if we are to become truly human.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Caputo on experience...

"...experience in the positive and maximal sense, experience that is really worth its salt... is not for mediocre fellows. The easy humdrum drift of everydayness is experience only in the minimal and negative sense that we are not stone dead, fast asleep, dead drunk, or completely unconscious, although sometimes, it seems, we might just as well be. Experience is really experience when we venture where we cannot or should not go; experience happens only if we take a chance, only if we risk going where we cannot go... precisely where taking another step farther is impossible...

The full intensity of experience, the fullest passion, is attained only... when a power - which here is "thinking" - is pushed to its limits, indeed beyond its limits, to the breaking point, to the point where it breaks open by colliding against what is beyond its power."

John D. Caputo

Saturday, October 6, 2007

loving and being, according to Olthuis...

"'To be or not to be' is no longer the sum of the matter... Rather, the supreme question is: 'To love or not to love.' In other words, love replaces being-as-power as the highest category. For in the degree that one is not in love, one is deficient in being... Instead of the Cartesian self-grounding of 'I think, therefore I am,' beginning with God's love means 'I am loved, therefore I am.' The birth of a self... is a bestowal of [love]... A self is born not only in and through (receiving) love, but equally, reciprocally, in and through (giving) love to others... I love in order to be."

James Olthuis (from The Hermeneutics of Charity)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ricoeur on violence...

"[O]ne principal cause of suffering is the violence human beings do to one another. In fact, to do evil is always, either directly or indirectly, to make someone else suffer... Violence, in this sense, constantly recreates the unity of moral evil and suffering. Hence, any action, whether ethical or political, that diminishes the quantity of violence exercised by some human beings over against other human beings diminishes the amount of suffering in the world."
(Evil, A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology)

This quote may seem redundant at first, but let it sink in. We actually have the capacity to quite literally reduce the amount of suffering in the world. Do we care? As followers of Christ, I certainly hope so! If so, what are we doing about it? What am I doing about it? That is a new question I am going to start asking myself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

the irony of atheism...

Here is an interesting article that describes the apparent logical result of modern atheistic thought. Well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

thoughts on friendship by Scott Becker...

"What most of the people around me have not done - and for this I am grateful - is evade the truth. They have not tried to stuff my story into a precut picture of a world in which everything works together and makes sense. They haven't offered cheesy suggestions as to how to turn this into a good situation. They haven't avoided me for fear of saying the wrong thing...

My friends, I'm finding, are those whose hearts and imaginations are large enough to make room for tremendous sorrow and tremendous joy both at the same time. The coexistence of these two has very much become a part of my own experience. They are so closely interwoven that if you try to exclude one, you exclude the other. Friendship, therefore, entails a willingness to bear sorrow with another, not despairingly, but in the confidence that in so doing you tap into the joy that is still very much a part of this person's life. For me, this is grounded in the knowledge that the Prince of Peace and the Man of Sorrows are one and the same."

- Scott Becker

in memory of Scott Becker...

It saddens me greatly to learn that Scott Becker passed away on Sept. 13, 2007. Scott was previously the assistant pastor at Bethany Community Church (where I attend) and had moved to Pasadena, CA, where he was working on his Ph.D at Fuller Seminary. Scott had cancer, and fought valiantly for several years, and there was a time when it looked as though the illness might be in permanent remission. But, it returned last year and, over the past several weeks, it seems his health took a traumatic downturn, until at last his body gave up the fight.

Scott will be greatly missed by a multitude of friends and loved ones. Personally, I am extremely appreciative of his willingness to take time out of his very busy schedule to encourage me in my own educational endeavors and to respond to my questions about doctoral studies. Scott was not only a profound thinker, but someone who genuinely desired to see the world changed by the love of Christ. His life was a testimony to the kind of honest, self-giving faith that doesn't run from difficult questions, yet continues to trust and show love in the midst of incredible adversity. Thanks, Scott, for your witness and example. Until we meet again...

I have no idea how long Scott's blog will remain active, but I am posting links to some of my favorite entries. I encourage you all to read them.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

more Simone Weil quotes...

"In general the expression 'for God' is a bad one. God ought not to be put in the dative. We should not go to our neighbor for the sake of God, but we should be impelled towards our neighbor by God, as the arrow is driven towards its target by the archer."

"God and the supernatural are hidden and formless in the universe. It is well that they should be hidden and nameless in the soul. Otherwise there would be a risk of having something imaginary under the name of God (those who fed and clothed Christ did not know that it was Christ). This is the meaning of the ancient mysteries. Christianity speaks too much about holy things."

"Among human beings, only the existence of those we love is fully recognized. Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

reading Simone Weil...

Here I am, trying to read another mystic... :-) I've wanted to read something by Simone Weil for a while now. She is one of those names you hear "Christian intellectual" types toss around, but few seem to know what to do with her or exactly how to react to her writings. I'm feeling sort of the same way as I work through Gravity and Grace. I am intrigued by her commitment to follow what she believed to be Christ's mandate for her life, in spite of the disturbing actions that commitment sometimes entailed (read a brief biography of her life and you'll know what I mean...). But as with most mystics, the language they use is sometimes very difficult to decipher. Still, I find myself intrigued by paragraphs like this one:

"We possess nothing in the world - a mere chance can strip us of everything - except the power to say 'I'. That is what we have to give to God - in other words, to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act which it is given to us to accomplish - only the destruction of the 'I'... Nothing in the world can rob us of the power to say 'I'... except extreme affliction. Nothing is worse than extreme affliction which destroys the 'I' from outside, because after that we can no longer destroy it ourselves. What happens to those whose 'I' has been destroyed from outside by affliction? It is not possible to imagine anything for them but annihilation according to the atheistic or materialistic conception."

A lot to chew on there... trying to decide whether I agree or disagree, or even if I understand what she is saying. And here I am supposed to be taking a break from thinking while I'm on break from school... :-)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

powell's books...

I've been slacking off lately with updating this blog, huh? Been finishing up a paper for my Philosophical Theology class (Yeah, the quarter is over!) and went down to Portland for Labor Day weekend with my friends Roy and Kurt. We visited our friend Kimi and had a lot of fun hanging out in the city... we went to Powell's books on Sunday afternoon, and let me just say, if you are a lover of books, Powell's is a Mecca. A bookstore that is four stories high and takes up an entire city block! You must go there if you're ever anywhere near the area. One of many reasons why Portland is one of my favorite cities. If I didn't live in Seattle, I'd love to live in Portland. Well, that's all I have to say for now. Back to more substantial posting soon!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

absolute truth vs. objective truth: a brief overview...

The following is an excerpt of a paper I recently wrote on "modern" and "postmodern" views of truth... my basic thesis is that we must properly differentiate between "objective" truth and "absolute" truth if we are to understand the postmodern critique of modern claims to truth and, indeed, further develop our understanding of truth as a whole (especially with regard to faith in God, etc.). Hope you enjoy it!

In his book Overcoming Ontotheology Merold Westphal describes the process by which philosophy has placed faith “in the human capacity to achieve… Truth (i.e. absolute truth).” The "unaided intellect" described in Plato's Phaedo eventually morphs into the rationalist and empiricist views of Descartes and Locke, respectively. Like the Christian apologists who oppose postmodernism, these philosophers did not claim to have absolute knowledge of all Truth. But, they did believe some absolute knowledge was possible (through their own particular system, of course), and whenever they discovered such knowledge, they claimed to know the Truth. For those who hold to the view that the “ideals of correspondence” can be achieved, explains Westphal, “Not even God could know it any better.”

There are good reasons why we should be suspicious of such claims to absolute truth. While we can indeed claim to have knowledge of objective truth, we cannot claim to have knowledge of absolute truth. They are not the same. Drawing on Kant, Westphal reminds us that humans are stuck in time and space, which means our access to the absolute is automatically limited. Additionally, it seems obvious that we will never have the mind of God (unless one believes that we will eventually become God). But, the objector responds, moderns do not claim to know everything, as God does, but simply that what they do know, they know both objectively and absolutely. Postmodernism, however, rejects the claim to absolute knowledge, since to know a thing absolutely would require knowing every aspect of that thing.

Human beings do not have the rational capacity to know every aspect of anything. This has long been a central theme within philosophy, from Hume to Kant to Kierkegaard to Heidegger and now in the postmoderns. Whereas Hegel and the idealists posited achieving knowledge of the absolute through the process of rational thought, and the empiricists asserted that whatever truth can be discovered is only found by examining the sensible world, the philosophies that birthed postmodernism examined both projects and found them wanting.

Let's use the apparently simple example of "grass being green." We quickly realize that what seems absolutely true is, in fact, far from absolute. Is grass green? That depends, first, on whether it is living or dead grass. But aside from this somewhat facetious statement, we now understand, from the study of optics, that what we call "green" is really the result of certain wavelengths of light being reflected to our eyes by the material we call "grass." The reflected wavelengths are what we perceive as the color "green." So, is grass really green? If this simple question becomes so complex, how can we expect anything less from the metaphysical?

The further we develop our science, our technology, and our rational formulae, the more we realize how finite and unknowledgeable we really are. The closer we get to what seems like an absolute truth, the farther that truth seems to slip away from us. It is like the end of the rainbow that is always beyond our field of vision, or the magnet with an opposite charge that darts away from our hand just as we approach and try and grab it. The hubris of humanity is that we are forever assuming that we are closer now to the absolute than we were prior to our latest discovery. But how does one "get closer" to the infinite?

But surely the laws of reason are absolute truths; inescapable facts, like the law of gravity. But even the law of gravity has vastly different effects, depending upon where we are positioned in the universe. Can we be sure that the laws of reason do not operate within the same shifting paradigm? But the laws themselves, surely they do not change! We know that 2+2=4, and A cannot be non-A. Granted. But do these abstract concepts really provide knowledge of the absolute truth about anything? Do they not rather give us varying degrees of certainty about the objective truths we discern? It seems that we confuse our concepts when we claim that absolute and objective truth can be rationally equated. As Westphal says, “We can call our beliefs true when we apprehend the world as we should; but they are not True, since that would require us to apprehend the world as we can’t.”

Postmoderns, affirms Westphal, do not “abandon the distinction between truth and falsity… they are only denying the metaclaim that our truths are Truth.” Postmoderns also take the linguistic turn to mean that “every language is a perspective, and… all our insights are relative to some frame of reference which is itself anything but absolute.” This simply means that “Because we cannot transcend the limited perspective of our location in time and in cultural history, knowledge can never be Truth.”

The common retort here is that such statements amount to a relativization of all knowledge. But in actuality, the result is far more benign. Postmoderns are simply pointing out that objective truth and absolute truth are not synonymous. As Westphal explains, this is the primary confusion in any discussion of truth between those who appropriate and those who oppose postmodernism. The latter believe that “The Truth is that there is Truth, and they assume that to disagree is to say, The Truth is there is no Truth. But… the postmodern claim is different, namely, the truth is that there is no Truth.” In other words, objective truth cannot claim to know absolute truth, no matter how rational it seems or how much evidence there is to support it.

Westphal responds directly to those who would seek to affirm that our knowledge of God (and truth) can be “on a par with God’s own self-knowledge.” Of course, as we have seen, they do not claim to have the same amount of knowledge as God, but access to the same level of knowledge regarding the facts that they can ascertain. They claim to be, according to Westphal, “entirely free from prejudice or perspective, wholly unconditioned by interests and desires, and relative to no human condition.”

What does Westphal say in response? He calls upon “a theologically motivated appropriation of postmodernism [to] challenge this move in all its forms, blatant and subtle.” But why do we need to challenge such a view? Because no matter how rigorous our methodology may be, no matter how disciplined our exegesis, we will never get our theology right, in the sense that our beliefs will “simply correspond to the object they intend…” In other words, even when we discern, believe and rationalize rightly, we still have not understood the mind of God. Again, this does not mean that we are left with "anything-goes" relativism. The postmodern theologian continues to struggle with interpretation, methodology, logic, etc. in order to defend what she believes to be true. But the postmodern theologian does so with the recognition that what we have is always, at best, only objective truth and never absolute.

Westphal uses the metaphor of trying to explain bacteria to a three-year-old child who has scraped her knee, as a way of describing the type of understanding we have about God. Telling the child that "invisible bugs" will make her sick doesn't come close to capturing the Truth of bacteria, but in a way, it is enough truth for the child to properly understand. In the same way, as philosophers, scientists, and - yes - theologians, even when we grasp the truth, we really haven’t discovered the Truth. Like Westphal, I find the postmodern distinction between objective and absolute truth most helpful in describing reality, especially given human finitude and my adherence to the Christian concept of the Fall. But Westphal makes it quite clear that there is still plenty of room for reasonable thinking, even with our limited access to absolute truth. For, as he points out, just because we do not have access to Truth, “does not entail that the Truth has no access to us, or that we should abandon the attempt to determine how best to think about what there is.” His arguments do not support the contention that there is no God, but merely that we are not God!

Clearly, we should not assume that postmodern thinkers are, on the whole, friendly to Christianity. But the effect of many of their arguments has been, as John Caputo has bluntly stated, “to gain a hearing for – God help us – religion and theology, a point that discomforts secularizing postmodernists every bit as much as it discomforts modernist critics…”

This, it seems to me, is one reason why postmodern thought presents Christians with a unique opportunity: It is a philosophical perspective that contains within itself a certain unavoidable angst, regardless of one’s system of belief. As one who deeply appreciates Kierkegaard, I find myself responding in the hope that, like Kierkegaard’s "anxiety," postmodern angst creates the possibility of a genuine step toward faith.

The post-modern critique is meant to be simply that: a critique. Its strength lies in its ability to remind thinkers in all fields of the potential downfall of any claim to certainty; namely, that being certain is not within the realm of human possibility, we only ever achieve an approximation of certainty. Granted, some certainties are more approximate than others, but postmodernism, when kept in check, serves not to disprove objective realities (like gravity and the law of non-contradiction) but merely as a reminder that our understanding of those realities should never become a type of rational certitude which creates within the individual an unbending refusal to examine other options. This attitude should be present in all facets of human life: religion, science, history, politics, psychology, and - yes - even postmodernism itself. That is an important first step, as we begin to traverse our objective, but not absolute, world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

cool new music...

Here are some of the new CDs I've been enjoying lately...

Interpol - Our Love To Admire
Maps - We Can Create
Battles - Mirrored

Also, the other day I put in an old Snapcase CD... man, I forgot how good they are. If you like 90's-era NY hardcore and haven't heard this CD (is that even possible?), well, go get it. That's all I can say. Production quality may not be "nu-rock" pristine, but when music has this much power, who cares?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

thoughts on Kierkegaard and faith...

The more I study Kierkegaard, the more I am convinced he has captured something of the true essence of Christianity, which is, at least in today’s American churches, desperately lacking. It is, quite simply, the nature of faith. Most modern Christians seem to have a rather one-dimensional view of faith: it is understood to be the decision one makes in response to Christ’s offer of salvation. So we make pronouncements, complete with “altar calls” - if anyone will pray the “sinner’s prayer,” Christ will save them. But minimizing faith to “accepting Jesus as my savior” reduces the depth and richness, as well as the challenge, of the continual surrender to Christ and appropriation of God’s "life" within our lives. What's more, we usually offer those who respond to our altar calls little explanation as to what a life of faith really entails.

Worse, some make faith into a kind of spiritual “Aladdin’s lamp,” with God as its genie. They believe material blessings flow from a robust faith, and suffering is the sign of weak faith. If we only had more faith, we are told, our problems would be solved and our questions would be answered. But Kierkegaard would have none of this! As he so aptly states in Fear and Trembling, “No one has the right to… let others suppose that faith is… an easy matter, when in fact it is the greatest and most difficult of all.” Faith is not a simple one-time decision; faith is a life-changing, life-long, event. Moreover, faith is not some mathematical formula that we plug in to get the right spiritual answer. Faith is an act of trust made “on the strength of the absurd,” and, grounded in absurdity, “is unshakeable even when it sees the impossibility.”

If Abraham is a true example of faith, then surely we must never tread lightly in matters of faith. Faith is a matter of life and death! Faith, in Abraham’s case, meant giving up everything: not just his son, but his future (because the legacy of the father is dependent upon future generations), his ethic, and his hope in everything other than God. Abraham is, in effect, being asked to lose himself for the sake of a God who is apparently going back on the promise He made to Abraham and taking away the very means through which Abraham, and indeed the world, would be blessed. This test is more than just a test of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac; it is a test of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice himself for a God that appears unethical to the rational mind.

Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac involves rejecting the ethical in order to fulfill an even greater purpose. But this decision goes against the ethical categories which are held by all rational people. Faith, in its truest form, appears insane! The “knight of faith” offers no justification for his or her actions; he or she simply acts in faith. We must do the same, if we are to be genuine people of faith. We must take a leap into the unknown, because we believe with all our hearts, and contrary to all sense, that God’s hand will be there to catch us. This view of faith should fill Christians with holy fear, because it immediately becomes clear that we do not live this way. We have not relinquished hope in our ideal categories; we do not step out beyond our comfortable, rational lives. And even when we do, it is often an orchestrated effort designed to benefit ourselves. But faith defies gravity and runs toward the edge, certain that, though it may freefall, it will not hit the ground. Altar calls and personal “genies” pale in comparison.

And so it is (at least I know this is true in my life) that our view of faith is quite often much too small. Our view of God’s grace and mercy is also much too small. Kierkegaard calls us as believers to remember how far we are from the life of faith, and in so doing reminds us to be humble and grateful to the God who both gives us the gift of faith, and remains faithful to us, even when we are so often nothing more than faithless.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

the human dignity of faith...

"To receive from God in faith is the height of human dignity. 'Human Dignity!?' someone may ask, raising eyebrows in puzzlement or even protest. 'It feels like faith diminishes us! It seems to underscore our inability rather than our power.' But that feeling of diminishment and humiliation comes from wrongly conceiving our relationship to God... Our power to be and to act comes from God. Faith merely recognizes this.

Hence faith doesn't tell us how little we are and what we can't do. On the contrary, it celebrates what we most properly are - God's empowered creatures - and it frees us to our greatest accomplishments... Faith is an expression of the fact that we exist so that the infinite God can dwell in us and work through us for the well-being of the whole creation. If faith denies anything, it denies that we are tiny, self-obsessed specks of matter who are reaching for the stars but remain hopelessly nailed to the earth..." - Miroslav Volf

Saturday, July 28, 2007

the veil of self-sin, pt. 2...

"Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction. We may as well try to instruct leprosy out of our system... We must bring our self-sins to the cross for judgment. We must prepare ourselves for an ordeal of suffering in some measure...

Let us remember that when we talk of the rending of the veil we are speaking in a figure, and the thought of it is poetical, almost pleasant, but in actuality there is nothing pleasant about it. In human experience that veil is made of living spiritual tissue; it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole beings consist, and to touch it is to touch us where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and make us bleed.

It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free... God must do everything for us. Our part is to yield and trust... We dare not rest content with a neat doctrine of self-crucifixion. Insist that the work be done in very truth and it will be done.

The cross is rough and it is deadly, but it is effective. It does not keep its victim hanging there forever. There comes a moment when its work is finished and the suffering victim dies. After that is resurrection glory and power, and the pain is forgotten for joy that the veil is taken away and we have entered, in actual spiritual experience, the presence of the living God." - A. W. Tozer

Thursday, July 26, 2007

the veil of self-sin...

"This veil is not a beautiful thing and it is not a thing about which we commonly care to talk... the self-sins are self-righteousness, self-pity, self-sufficiency, self-admiration... and a host of others like them. They dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention till the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins - egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion - are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders, even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. I trust it is not a cynical observation to say that they appear these days to be a requisite for popularity in some sections of the church... Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice." - A.W. Tozer

Sunday, July 15, 2007

sketching a theodicy...

In my Philosophical Theology II class (which just ended), we spent a considerable amount of time discussing various theological approaches to the problem of evil. One of the things our prof. asked us to do was to sketch out a preliminary theodicy of our own. I am going to post mine here (edited a bit for space) in order to hopefully get some feedback. So, here we go... it's a bit long, so bear with me... :-)

As I begin to think through my own theodicy, I find that I have the most in common with the “free will defense.” The primary reason for this is my desire to hold onto three things: 1) Christian orthodoxy, 2) Rational practicability, and 3) Existential hope. I wish to remain logically consistent and biblically sound, recognizing that my hermeneutic will have a direct affect on my theodicy.

It is important, as Barth was fond of saying, “to begin at the beginning.” Therefore, I will begin my theodicy with a brief description of the problem of evil. God, as traditionally understood, is both all-powerful, and totally good. And yet, evil exists. While some have opted to respond to this problem by denying God’s omnipotence or God’s goodness (or God's existence!), I believe that both of these can continue to be affirmed without making God culpable for the existence of evil.

First, we must examine the traditional Christian understanding of God. God, in order to be God, must contain all God’s attributes in their totality. To be sure, we should, as Bloesch implores, always remember that God is not contained in attributes, nor captured by any human terminology. (Bloesch, Donald. God The Almighty, p. 34-35) Any sentence that begins with “God is…” necessitates a predicate that cannot be adequately expressed in human terms, because of God’s infinite and inscrutable nature. However, when we do attempt to speak of God, Christian faith must guard against dualism, which means we are caught in a contradiction: We cannot say, for example, that God is both “good” and “evil” because we do not believe in a God who appropriates those terms haphazardly. God is ultimately good.

So then, how can we describe God? We can say that “evil,” rather than being an attribute in opposition to “good,” is instead the absence of good. Without resorting to monism, I believe that it is possible to develop a Christian understanding of evil as the absence of goodness. This, I suggest, is the case with every Godly attribute – its inverse is not an equal but opposite attribute, it is a lack; the absence of what could have been. Of course, this begs the questions of how evil got here and who is responsible for it. If we say that God contains the totality of God’s attributes, then if God causes or permits evil, God seems to lack total goodness, which means that we have to come up with an entirely different definition of God.

Is it possible to maintain the traditional Christian concept of God without attributing evil to God? Yes; we need not assume that God is to blame for evil. This is, in my view, because of the nature of the universe. If the Christian view of God is correct, one very interesting question is, how can anything at all in the universe exist? Christians believe that God created ex nihilo a distinct universe which is contingent upon God, and that God did so as an outpouring of God’s love. But if God is all in all, wouldn't everything that exists somehow be an extension of God-self, making it impossible for a distinct universe to exist at all? The response is that somehow God has chosen to limit God-self, in order to create a universe that is distinct from God.

The downside to this is that creation is necessarily limited, finite, less than total. Creation can thereby be described as a divine “withdrawal” in which “perfection allows something other than itself to exist.” (Davis, Stephen, ed. Encountering Evil, p. 155) This withdrawal means that the opportunity, at least, for what we call “natural evil” is inherent in the universe. Scientific evidence indicates that our universe is very old, and very dangerous. In fact, there are a myriad of fine-tuned measurements that are necessary for life to exist on earth. It is difficult to grasp the true nature of the universe. But one thing seems quite clear: the world, as we know it, will not last forever. Eventually everything will break down, or burn out, or dissolve into the chaos out of which the universe was apparently formed.

Applying this to theodicy, what can we say? That the universe exists in such a way that it is “out to get us?” Is God to blame for creating this finite reality? Before we go down that road, it is worthwhile to remember that “natural evil” involves no inherent ill will towards humanity. In fact, without the existence of sentient beings, there would be no reason to classify the world as "evil," as the word would contain no significance. What we call natural evil is the inherent tendency of a finite creation to decay and return to chaos.

Here, I take an Irenaean, rather than an Augustinian, approach. The Genesis narratives are not literal accounts of creation; instead, they are allegorical sagas, which, though rooted in historical (and pre-historical) reality, should not be taken as word-for-word fact. While I do not abandon the concept of “original sin” entirely, I believe that it should be viewed primarily as an existential event resulting from our finitude and our human inability to respond properly to that finitude. I concede that some sort of spiritual “fallen-ness” afflicts humanity, but I do not presume it is the cause of the world in which we live.

Still, we must face the fact that evil does happen in our world. How is God not to blame? In order for creation to have a meaningful or genuine existence, that universe must be “other” than God. As such, it will be, in some way, a finite universe which will necessarily allow for the possibility of evil. So the question of why God would allow such a world is based upon the false assumption that there can be any existent universe which does not include the possibility of natural evil. It is pointless to ask why God didn't create a “perfect world.” Could I be "Geoff" in a universe that was already perfect and complete? I would, it seems, only exist as a feature of God, without any ontological capacity to respond to anything, including God. We might as well say that the universe shouldn’t have been created at all. Such a response is a non-answer, because how can we, as creatures, say with any consistency that it would be better if we did not exist?

But, it might be argued; surely God could have made a world with less natural evil? Perhaps, but this assumes a world requiring an incredible amount of cosmological “fine-tuning,” given that the world in which we live is already one of astounding distinction. And, it should be mentioned, one of astounding beauty. Our world is already better suited to life than any world known to us (as opposed to “the best possible world”). This also raises the additional question of just what kind of a world would satisfy us. At what point do we agree that there is “the right amount” of natural evil? How is this not simply an infinite regress to the “perfect world?” And, how would we be able to make any decisions necessary to moral, or even rational, growth if there was not some type of natural evil? Would a world without the law of gravity, for example, make any sense?

Even if such a world were possible, how can we be sure that our actions would not influence it in such a way that further natural evil would be the result? But now we are moving from natural evil to moral evil. How much of our exposure to natural evil is entirely unrelated to our decisions? It is impossible to say with any amount of precision, of course, but we must not avoid the question. Was hurricane Katrina primarily to blame for the deaths in New Orleans, or was it poor planning on the part of those who built the city? We must tread very carefully here; I do not for a minute want to minimize suffering or blame any victims, innocent or otherwise, for a tragedy in which they have experienced loss. But human freedom does play a role, I think, much more than we like to admit.

It is here that I find Davis’ "free will" approach to be most helpful in explaining the problem of evil. The basic idea is that human beings have genuine freedom which, although not entirely independent from God’s sovereign will, is nevertheless the type of freedom which allows for an authentic response of the human will. God does not coerce human beings; God’s will is carried out through free human responses. So, does this mean that when we do not seek God we frustrate God’s will? Only inasmuch as we lengthen the amount of time between God’s initial creation and God’s final revelation. God is not caught off guard or perplexed by our human decisions. God recognizes every decision we make and accounts for it, not only in patient love, but also in preparation for a final judgment and restoration.

Humanity, in its finitude, has succumbed to its own potential for evil. Christians do accept a spiritual element of reality which has been affecting the creation since its inception. To what extent those “powers and principalities” are responsible for natural or moral evil we can only speculate. What cannot be denied is that human beings made, and continue to make, bad choices, based upon our inherent sinful attitudes. These attitudes, I would suggest, are both individual and collective, and may be properly classified as a “fall.” But Christian thought insists that it didn’t have to be this way.

It is important to carefully parse out what is meant here. On the one hand, the reality of finitude made it extremely unlikely that human beings would not sin. On the other, Scripture indicates that there was, and is, an intimate connection between God and people – a connection centered in the event of Jesus Christ – which provided, at least initially, the promise of a world in which humanity would not succumb to temptation. Should we call it “innocence?” I am not certain, but what seems clear is that, very early on, humanity failed. But this was not a failure for which God was unprepared. In fact, God knew the inevitability of human failure and planned, before the creation, for the salvation of humanity and the restoration of all creation.

The free decision of humanity to reject God’s offer of intimacy and live on their own terms has resulted in thousands of years of ever-increasing moral evil. This is not simply a matter of personal evil; the moral evil of humanity long ago reached a level at which it might easily be called cultural or national evil. Evil now permeates our existence as humans to such an extent that it is difficult to say where good ends and evil begins. The “knowledge of good and evil” has turned on us and is now showing its true nature: Such knowledge cannot be contended with by anything short of that which already contains complete knowledge, that is, God. Since we are not God, we are trapped in a reality in which we cannot avoid doing some evil, no matter how hard we try.

So, if we say, “God created humanity, so isn’t God responsible for their actions?” we are minimizing our own freedom in an effort to shift the blame. But shifting the blame for moral evil onto God provides little consolation, because this means that either God is evil or impotent, or human beings have no genuine freedom. In either scenario, we lose. However, by accepting our freedom, and the responsibility that goes along with genuine freedom, we actually find ourselves inhabiting a world where there is an actual possibility of a positive outcome. All of this is, of course, contingent upon God’s ultimate redemption of creation, and God’s deliverance and restoration of all that has been affected by evil. If we do not believe that Scripture is correct when it says that God is going to reconcile everything in Christ (which is not to be necessarily equated with universalism), then any attempt at a theodicy is an exercise in futility.

Much of what I have said here may seem of little value to someone who asks about the suffering of even one innocent child. What can be said in response to the gratuitous evil which falls upon those who least deserve it? To this I can only say that any response to the vast expanse of the experience of suffering in our world must be treated with the utmost care, recognizing that, in Christ, God apparently experiences suffering equal to if not greater than human suffering. The flaw in Karamazov’s claim is that it equates any suffering with torture. But torture is moral evil caused by humans, and should not be simply equated with evil in a cosmic sense. If so, we can only say that God is torturing us in simply giving us life in a less-than-perfect world. Such an anthropomorphized view of God inevitably leads to nihilism (any anthropomorphizing of God is a grave error!).

As Christians, we can offer compassion and shared sorrow in relationship with others, as well as the hope of God’s final restoration of what has been lost through evil. No, this does not change the fact that evil happens, but it does mean that we believe evil does not have the last word. No matter how difficult it may seem, we can continue to believe that God is both almighty and good, because to do otherwise is to settle for a God that is, in the end, no God at all.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

heat wave + philosophical theology = whew!

Wow, it's hot today... Seattle's in the midst of its "summer heat wave," which happens every year, around this time, for about two weeks. Temps get up into the '90s and everyone complains because there are no air conditioners out here. Seriously. Most houses don't have them, because you only really need them for about two weeks. But right now there's a lot of whining :-)

Anyway, I am halfway through my Philosophical Theology class at Fuller NW, and we have been discussing the "problem of evil," and I hope to post a couple blogs on that soon. But first, the other day we discussed a "proper" view of Christian philosophy, and here is what my professor proposed. I am curious to see what other philosophically-oriented Christians think of this approach:

  • A Thomistic form: One should distinguish philosophy and theology and not confuse them. Philosophy and theology have difference audiences. The former speaks to the academy, the latter to the church. They have a different primary norm. Philosophy’s norm is to be faithful to reason and common human experience. Theology’s primary norm is to be faithful to revelation, or Scripture. They also have a different primary focus. Philosophy focuses on "fundamental questions of reality" (ontology, epistemology, etc), while theology, while drawing on conceptions of such primary issues (as is done in systematic theology), directs itself to more specific matters of faith (Christian life, worship, the Church).
  • An Augustinian content: Faith and reason must be viewed as being intimately connected in some way. Christian philosophy acknowledges its presuppositions. Every type of philosophy, or any discipline for that matter, has presuppositions, intuitions, etc. These basic intuitions cannot be deduced or proven in rigorous faith. They are the result of “gestalts on reality” or “gestalt switches,” and are usually rooted in paradigmatic life experiences. However, one should not necessarily distinguish them too sharply from reason.
  • A Tilllichian purpose: Theology draws upon the insights of philosophy, such that Christian philosophy offers an important service to the Church. Christian philosophers ought to recognize the responsibility that comes with such service.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

brief update + Barth post #3...

Ok, it's a been a couple weeks and I know I promised more blogging, but... such is life! :-) I finished my Philosophical Inquiry class at Mars Hill Grad School (no affiliation with the church), taught by Dr. Carl Raschke. It was very enjoyable and I learned quite a bit about several modern/postmodern continental philosophers... I now have to get my assignments done for that class, and in the meantime, I have now started my Philosophical Theology class at Fuller NW, taught by Dr. Dan Stiver.

Our primary focus for this class will be questions of faith vs. reason and the question of evil. I'm excited because these are questions that really intrigue and trouble me, and I am glad to have an opportunity to examine them more closely in an academic setting... always keeping in mind, of course, that what really matters is how ideas can be applied in the real world of pain and doubt. Anyway, I have a two-week vacation from work, which is great, except I'm not really on vacation! haha. But at least I can sleep in a bit later than usual...

Anyway, I wanted to get back to posting about Barth, and so I thought this would be a good time to do just that. So, what follows is a quick recap and some of my thoughts re: Barth's Doctrine of the Word:

Barth views the Christian faith, and indeed all of theology, as nothing other than a direct result of God's revelation; this revelation comes through the three-fold Word of God, which consists of Jesus Christ (the Word incarnate), Scripture (the Word written), and the witness of the Church (the Word proclaimed). Volume 1 of the Dogmatics focuses on Barth's Doctrine of the Word.

Barth begins by reminding us that we must start with God, and not ourselves, in developing Christian theology. This means starting with God's revelation, and not falling into a philosophical system that has an anthropological and/or historical foundation which leads to, as he puts it, "a purely human possibility" of knowing God. So how do we avoid this error? Barth explains that the standard for our knowing must remain "the Word of God revealed as Holy Scripture when it is in the context of embracing the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ..."

Now, admittedly, this still seems rather vague. Barth points out that God does speak in mystery, and yet, every time God reveals Godself, Barth says that we can know this intellectually, spiritually, personally and purposefully.

The Word, he says, moves from knowledge to acknowledgement, which is a form of deeper knowledge. But acknowledgement is only known through itself, and this occurs through the experience of faith. But, unlike theological "liberalism," this experience must be judged by the three-fold Word.

So, Barth would say something like this: "You claim to have had an experience of God. Has it pointed you to Jesus Christ? Is there anything in your experience that is contrary to Scripture? And does it bear witness to the Word as faithfully preached in the Church, locally, worldwide, and throughout history? If there is a question regarding any of these, we must question the degree to which the experience is a genuine revelation of God's Word.

Barth is quick to point out that there is a difference between what one can speculate, and what one can theologically teach as doctrine. We must focus on the three-fold Word, and if it is ambiguous, it cannot be doctrine. This does not mean there is no room for change, but if there is a case where speculation is gradually seen to be a truer revelation of the three-fold Word, we must be very cautious before we simply jump from speculation to dogma. Such a process is often difficult to ascertain, and in the meantime we must bear witness to Christ as our first priority! And, we must continue to ask for clarity, both as individuals and as the Church.

There is also some vagueness within the three-fold Word itself. Barth is not willing to give priority to one form of the Word over the others. But this seems to contradict his strong Christological focus: Barth himself appears to give priority to the Word incarnate (Jesus Christ). This same dilemma shows up in Barth's approach to the Trinity: He sometimes implies that there is a hierarchical relationship within the Trinity, but he would never have admitted such a view, because he does not want to separate out the immanent (what God is) and economic (what God does) aspects of the Trinity.

My prof. for the class, Bryan Burton, suggests that Barth may have been intentionally vague at these points because he was trying to remain strictly Trinitarian in his theology, which forced him to be rather nuanced in these areas.

Ok, that's it for now...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sam and Frodo and the rest of us...

So, I am planning more posts re: the Karl Barth class, but I've also just started a Philosophical Inquiry class, and I'm supposed to read Heidegger tonight, so rather than spend a ton of time writing new posts today, I am going to post a revised version of a post I wrote in the pre-blogspot days... hope you're all LOTR fans... :-)

One of my favorite scenes from Tolkien's "The Two Towers" is when Sam and Frodo are following Gollum through the swamps and valleys into Mordor, hoping to find a way to destroy the evil ring of power. Gollum, for those of you (if there are any!) who have never seen the movies or read the books, is a nasty, evil creature, a slave to the ring, but has promised to be Frodo's faithful guide, because Frodo has treated him with kindness. Frodo realizes that only Gollum can lead them into Mordor without being captured by the enemy. Sam distrusts Gollum and is fully aware of his treacherous nature.

At one point, Sam asks Frodo (I'm paraphrasing a bit here), "Why do you care what happens to Gollum? He's evil and will turn on you if he has a chance."

Frodo's reply is simple and powerful: "Because I have to believe that he can come back." In other words, Frodo knew that hoping his own life could be saved meant hoping that Gollum's life could be restored as well. Gollum had been terribly corrupted by evil, but Frodo refused to believe that there was no hope. Sam, on the other hand, refused to believe that Gollum could be anything other than what he was, i.e. evil.

It turns out, in the story, that both Sam and Frodo did the right thing. Frodo's kindness gave them a means to destroy the ring, and Sam's skepticism provided him with the means to save Frodo. And this same paradox of hope and skepticism plays itself out in our lives every day.

We are all created with a bit of Sam and a bit of Frodo, in differing amounts, within ourselves. Some of us are too trusting. Some of us are too suspicious. None of us gets it just right.

The "Frodos" among us realize that if we have any hope of life, freedom, salvation, etc., we must offer that same hope to others as well. The "Sams" are quick to point out that some people are, in all probability, simply beyond hope; they will not turn from their wicked ways, no matter what happens. The "Frodos" respond that it doesn't matter whether they are beyond hope or not, if we are to live in hope, we must believe that people can change, or we will lose hope that we ourselves can change.

The outcome, of course, is unknown and unpredictable. How do we respond? I guess my own hope is that the "Frodos" will learn to listen more carefully to the cautions of the "Sams", and that the "Sams" will learn to open themselves to the risky challenge of hope presented by the "Frodos".

But as Christians, we must also remember that our faith is based in the belief that hope ultimately wins. But do we really live as though we believe hope will win? Are we ready to give that hope even to those that appear beyond its reach? Or are we, like Sam, so certain of the demise of certain individuals that we would deprive them of any hope? That seems to me (and perhaps I am betraying my own "Frodo-ness" here) to be very wrong indeed.

Doesn't Dante's entrance to hell read, "abandon all hope, ye who enter here"? I am not ready to deprive anyone of hope, and yet I recognize (as most of my friends will attest!) that a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing at times. I struggle with both sides of this coin, and I've not found the balance... I probably won't in this life, but I must keep struggling regardless.

This all brings to mind another great quote from LOTR, this one from Gandalf, when he tells Frodo: "There are many who live that deserve death, and those who are dead that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be too quick to deal out death and judgement."