Thursday, December 25, 2008

an inspiring Christmas Eve homily worth pondering...

From the Faith and Theology blog, by Kim Fabricius... read it here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Love Actually? Thoughts on our culture's response to the "L" word...

I am not an expert on love by any means (I'm almost 37, single, and grow more clueless about women by the day! :-D). But I am getting really tired of western culture's portrayal - at least as represented in the popular media - of love.

Case in point: recently I watched, with some friends, the movie "Love Actually." (Warning: spoilers ahead) Ostensibly a Christmas movie, the film consisted of several inter-connected stories about people dealing with "love" during the holiday season. The premise, as stated at the very beginning of the film, is that the world is filled with love. Well, if the examples in the movie are supposed to be the norm, then I'll pass, thanks.

I admit, there were some enjoyable moments - we can smile at the youthful energy of an 11-year old boy trying to get the "love of his life" to notice him, and the idea of an aging musician who realizes that his friendship with his manager is a more real love than all of his shoddy relationships built on fame and pleasure. But by and large, the films' depictions of "love" are both shallow and unrealistic, and connected to the popular notion that once we find that other person who really makes us happy, we will have found true love. While this is quite appealing, it also is the perpetuation of a dangerous myth. I'll explain why in a minute.

This is not limited to one particular movie; it is - I would suggest - THE most prevalent theme in "romantic love" movies, and has been for some time. And not just movies... the notion exists, throughout our culture, that love is a magical experience where two people each find their missing half, or realize that the other person is "the one" they've been looking for all along. It's an idea that sounds amazing (who doesn't want to find their true love?!), but I think it misses the point of love entirely.

What is the point of love? I think, as cheesy as it may sound, the simplest answer is found in John 3:16: "God so loved... that He gave..." Love is giving to another for the sake of that other. Love is first recognizing the value of the other person, and then responding accordingly. When we really examine this idea, we find that it is completely different, and opposed to, the "movie version" of love.

First, true love always starts with the other. This is really easy to say, and extremely difficult to practice. In romantic love, it is almost inevitable that we will see the other person as somehow appealing to us. This is to be expected, of course, since (like it or not!) a big part of what we call romantic love is, in fact, biological and chemical attraction. Even if we add in psychological factors, "Eros" is still primarily a love based in selfish desires - not necessarily bad, but selfish in the real sense of the word, in that I am thinking about how wonderful the experience will be for myself.

This is no doubt necessary, because if there were no physical or psychological attraction, no one would want to be in love! But, herein also lies the danger of the myth perpetuated by our culture's version of love: It confuses the natural attraction people experience as "true love." Movies like "Love Actually" imply, in the way the stories are told, that the experience of "falling in love" is the same as real love. But that's not true. At best, it is only the first step. And when we mistake the first step for the destination, we will end up going nowhere. This, it seems to me, is precisely the fix much of our society is in, when it comes to love.

True love, as most people will readily admit, requires time, energy, and overcoming challenges. Love develops and grows, and does not reach its apex in 1, 5, or even 50 years. That is, if it is truly love. Too often love stagnates and dissipates with time. The movie had the opportunity to deal with this situation in the story of a wife who is attempting to deal with her husband's infidelity; unfortunately that story never really gets off the ground, it is swept away by the "magic" of happy Christmas love stories. (Or, more likely, the producers didn't want to delve too far into that vignette; after all, this was supposed to be a happy holiday movie!)

If real love is not something that we find, but something that we develop (or, rather, it develops us!), then the way we approach potential romantic situations will have to change drastically. I may be giving the impression that I understand this; in fact, I'm caught up in the "love movie" idea of love as much as anyone else. In fact, I think that the Christian culture may be even more guilty of romanticizing love than the world-at-large. Why? Not only are we greatly influenced by our culture (perhaps more now than ever before?) but we also have the misappropriation of Scripture to deal with.

How does that happen? It happens when Christians take the "one flesh" passages and combine them with a Hollywood-picture of romantic love. We then assume that what God wants is for each of us to find our "true love" so that we can live happily ever after. And, we should do it by the time we're in our mid-twenties so we can make sure to have plenty of time to have lots of babies! After all, we are to "be fruitful and multiply." The problems with such misappropriation of Scripture are numerous, but the most obvious one ought to be that such a view of love is just as stunted as the view represented by the movie - it mistakes the first step for the ending. It sees true love as a magical "coming together" created by God, with everything else as an afterthought.

I admit, I want to find "the one" and fall in love and live happily ever after. But I also want my love to be real. And that may mean having to let go of all my preconceptions about love, especially those that have been given to me by my culture, and that includes the "Christian-ized" versions of those myths. In the end, true love may have nothing to do with whether I find "the one." It may have everything to do with how I give my life to others as an act of service, in the same way Christ gave himself to us, as the hymn says, "emptying himself of all but love..." I pray for the grace to understand what that means, and live accordingly.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


So, haven't had much to say in the last few days... but changes are afoot:

1) I have finished all my PhD applications. Now I wait to hear back from the schools...
2) I have to move out of my apartment. My housemate/landlord and his wife are expecting their first child, and apparently it will need the entire basement! :-)
3) I have found a new apartment, but since I am in limbo (at least until April) with regard to PhD programs, I will be boxing everything up, moving in Jan, and keeping it all packed up until I hear back, at which time I'll either unbox and figure out what to do if I'm not accepted, or...
4) I will remain packed up until August, at which point I'll be moving to some other part of the country, starting a PhD program, and a whole new phase of life will begin. So, needless to say, the next several months will be quite interesting.
5) Prayers appreciated!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

a different kind of power...

"[T]he Jesus in whom I believe allowed himself to be beaten up, and mocked, and spat at... and when one of his followers tried to defend him, he told him 'we don't do things that way.' That story is precisely the story of how the world is saved..." - N.T. Wright

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

deconstructive philosophy for advent... :-)

"Faith is waiting and anticipation. It cannot under any circumstances count on the temporal exactitude of correspondence between an assertion and its verification... Deconstruction and messianicity are bound up closely with each other, inasmuch as the deconstitution of the sign brings about a total openness to how God can reveal himself, or does reveal himself, in a concrete setting. The Christmas story - God having been born in a stable - is a complete deconstruction of all the texts of messianicity that had preceded it."

- Carl Raschke

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is logic necessary to reality? I wonder...

I have been having a random, but very interesting, discussion on another blog, and I thought I'd post some of my thoughts here, to see if there's any feedback... feel free to point out any inconsistencies in my thinking; I'm sure there are many!

My main point (as a good Kierkegaardian ;-D) is that any discussion of God inevitably falls into the realm of the "illogical." Faith, being a leap into the "absurd," implies that God is beyond any human reasoning. God is, for us, the ultimate paradox (especially the God-man, Jesus Christ). But what does this mean?

To quote another theologian-blogger (who is far more advanced than me!), the problem with classical metaphysics, when speaking about God, is that "it begins by speaking about a human attribute (power or potency) and then raises this attribute to the Nth degree and applies it to God. But then we are actually speaking about ourselves first, and not God. And when we start by speaking of ourselves, it is never clear that we ever end up actually speaking about God."

I agree with his point, but I would take it one step further: This inability to perceive whether we are actually speaking about God also applies to logic itself. Since logic, as traditionally understood, is fundamentally a human endeavor (of the mind), logic is insufficient as a final arbiter of God's reality.

It is said that reality is always logically consistent. This seems to be the case up to a point, but in some recent areas of study (quantum physics, for example) people are finding that what we call logic starts to break down. Phenomenologically, logic also runs into serious trouble. I think that must be infinitely more true with God...

Now, it could be that we just don't grasp some deeper consistency of logic that has yet to be discovered, but I don't see much difference between saying something is illogical, and saying something is logical, but we just have no idea (yet) how it can possibly be logical.

In fact, I see two dangers in making the latter statement -- not only are we potentially talking about ourselves rather than God, but if we say that reality (including God) is always logically consistent, then we are also implicitly making God dependent upon logic, whether we intend to or not.

Logic does not cause reality. But if we assent to that, then we should not assume that reality is limited to logic. I would say, instead, that reality causes "all the true axioms that logic depends on" and more. Maybe that's a cop-out, or maybe I'm arguing semantics; I don't know.

I suppose it really comes down to whether logic is necessary to reality. I'm not convinced that, at least when speaking of human logic, this is the case. Though I'm not sure what other kind of logic there might be besides human logic.

Anyone have thoughts on this?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Zizek on the current economic crisis...

This excerpt from a recent article by Slavoj Zizek is, I think, quite intriguing:

"The financial meltdown has made it impossible to ignore the blatant irrationality of global capitalism. In the fight against Aids, hunger, lack of water or global warming, we may recognise the urgency of the problem, but there is always time to reflect, to postpone decisions. The main conclusion of the meeting of world leaders in Bali to talk about climate change, hailed as a success, was that they would meet again in two years to continue the talks. But with the financial meltdown, the urgency was unconditional; a sum beyond imagination was immediately found. Saving endangered species, saving the planet from global warming, finding a cure for Aids, saving the starving children . . . All that can wait a bit, but ‘Save the banks!’ is an unconditional imperative which demands and gets immediate action.

The panic was absolute. A transnational and non-partisan unity was immediately established, all grudges among world leaders momentarily forgotten in order to avert the catastrophe. (Incidentally, what the much-praised ‘bi-partisanship’ effectively means is that democratic procedures were de facto suspended.) The sublimely enormous sum of money was spent not for some clear ‘real’ task, but in order to ‘restore confidence’ in the markets – i.e. for reasons of belief. Do we need any more proof that Capital is the Real of our lives, the Real whose demands are more absolute than even the most pressing demands of our social and natural reality?"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 3

So, back to Rene Girard and mimetic theory... (which I just realized I misspelled in my previous posts! Whoops!)

Previously, I briefly described Girard's theory and the explanation it provides for human violence. Now, I want to look at Girard's description of the manner in which the biblical narrative, culminating in Christ, actually represents the reversal of violence. Again, my source is Depoortere's Christ in Postmodern Philosophy.

Girard claims that the Bible describes a "gradual exit" (to use Depoortere's words) from the cycle of violence that is interwoven within ancient myths and religions, and, in fact, all of human culture. While this may seem spurious, given the amount of violence contained within the Bible, Girard asserts that unlike other ancient stories, violence in the Scriptures is presented as worthy of condemnation rather than praise. In Greek and Roman mythology, for example, murder is seen as simply part of the destiny of relationships between gods and men. In the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, however, murder is roundly condemned.

What's more, the Bible consistently describes God as taking the side of the victim. Remember that Girard has hypothesized that the "scapegoat" is understood by human beings as a necessary sacrifice to alleviate violence. This does not, however, mean that the scapegoat was necessarily understood to be innocent. The victim's innocence was connected less to the victim, and more to the alleviation of the violence, or evil, or curse. The innocence of the victim her/himself is actually an idea that owes a great deal to the Hebrew understanding of violence, as it is described in the Bible. Rather than simply resigning to the need for the victim to exist, the Bible undermines violence by pointing out that the victim has done nothing wrong.

This is seen most clearly, of course, in the prophecies alluding to Christ (Isaiah 53, for example). Jesus' death and resurrection are a fulfillment of these prophetic messages describing God's immanent reversal of the violent system imbedded within human culture and human hearts. In Christ, God is telling humanity that the way to life involves abandoning violence and vengeance, and surrendering fully to God's love.

However, Jesus' message was not well received, to put it mildly. Rather than responding to Jesus' call to renounce violence, people actually turned their violence upon Jesus, making him into the ultimate scapegoat! It is this travesty - God as the ultimate innocent victim of violence - that reveals the root of human violence. So, the crucifixion is not just an event that reveals something about God, it also reveals something about us. It reveals our captivity to violence. This revelation of the structure of violence is, for Girard, a sort of evidence of Christ's divinity.

The resurrection, in turn, is not only Jesus being raised to new life (which is available for humanity as well), it is also the paradigmatic example of freedom from violence. When even death cannot succeed, violence has been stripped of its power. There is much more to say about this, but I want to stop and make a few brief observations:

First, some will no doubt question Girard's interpretation of Scripture. Clearly there are examples in the Bible where it appears that God either condones violence, or outright commands it. Girard's mythologically-oriented view of Scripture allows him to brush these aside as anomalies. This is a weakness, I think, but I will let you take that up with Girard by reading his books for yourself... ;-)

Second, and more pressing, I think, is the following issue: violence still exists - perhaps now more than ever - 2,000 years after Christ's death and resurrection. How do we deal with this? Girard seems to think that, in spite of continuing violence, the message of the Gospel is slowly working its way out in human history. He states, for example, regarding the longing for vengeance: "... longing for real vengeance is a luxury which can only be afforded in a society in which violence has already been curtailed..." However, I am not sure this is really the case.

It is extremely difficult to quantify how much violence may or may not have been alleviated by the Gospel versus the traditional cultural method of scapegoating. Certainly I prefer the Christian message of non-violence to other approaches. But it seems to me that if Girard's theory holds any weight, than we must also admit that most Christians have rejected, and continue to reject, the message of Christ's Gospel, which calls into question the validity of that Gospel. How transformative can a message be if no one cares enough to really take it seriously? This leads into questions of human will and agency, which I will not address here. Of course, this also leads us back to the ultimate question of hope: Do we believe that, in spite of everything we see around us, God really is in the process of redeeming the world? How we answer that is the surest description of the status of our faith.

At any rate, Girard's theory is quite impressive, and intriguing, and deserves further attention, if only for its expansive effort to account for the whole of human behavior and culture. That it is also a profound theory of religion is the icing on the cake, so to speak. :-)

Monday, November 10, 2008

quote of the week...

"As soon as God starts holding your hand and says that everything you are doing is fine, and 'I am with you in your complacency,' then the game is up." - philosopher David Wood

Friday, November 7, 2008

Let's talk about gay marriage...

I'm going to take a break from finishing my little series on Girard to say a few quick things about the issue of gay marriage. Obviously, it's a "hot button" right now, with the recent approval of Prop. 8 in CA, and other anti-gay-marriage initiatives passing in FL and AZ. But my main reason for writing this is not to support or oppose gay marriage per se. It is simply to point out some apparent logical flaws that no one seems to be discussing (at least not to my knowledge).

First, it seems rather clear that we are dealing with two different definitions of "marriage" here. Until people on both sides are able to appreciate this fact and deal with it more effectively, both pro- and anti-gay-marriage proponents will continue to talk past each other. One group (typically) sees marriage as an institution ordained by God. The other (typically) sees marriage as an institution organized by the state, to provide certain benefits to people who are in committed relationships.

There is "religious" marriage, and there is "civil" marriage. The two are not the same. But they have been conflated into one grand, amorphous image of marriage that is neither real nor helpful. Marriage, as traditionally practiced throughout history in nearly every culture, was and is a religious institution. It is important to the structure of society, yes, but it (to my knowledge - correct me if I'm wrong!) has almost always, everywhere, been primarily a religious ceremony based upon religious principles.

Fine. So what's the problem? The problem is: The United States is not a nation where the laws are based primarily upon religious principles. Religion has always played a part, to be sure - after all, this nation was founded by Westerners who were steeped in the Christian tradition. Some took their faith more seriously than others. But they all agreed that religion would not be the guiding force behind the new nation. Rather, they relied primarily upon the enlightenment ideals of liberty, individuality, and justice. (We can argue about the capacity for those ideals to be realized without religious faith, but that is presently beside the point.)

Since the United States exists within the tension created by the "wall of separation" that is meant to keep religion from exercising undue influence over the state, a couple of things follow:

1) In a country where everyone can claim the freedom to equal treatment, sooner or later, a minority group of people who feel that they are being treated unjustly, with less liberties, will ask for the same "rights" as the majority.

2) In deciding whether or not those people deserve those liberties, the primary deciding factor cannot be religious beliefs. We who take our Christian faith seriously may not like that, but that is the way it is. Some Christians think we would be better off if our religion determined the laws - they want to live in an "American theocracy" of some sort. Personally, I think Scripture, history, and plain good sense tell us that would be a bad idea.

So, to make a long post short, at some point in the history of the U.S., "marriage" morphed from being primarily a religious event into something that is primarily a civil event. In fact, I would suggest that the vast majority of American marriages today are less religious than civil in nature. Whatever the case, when that began to happen, it opened the door to that same civil freedom being potentially available to anyone else in America. So, ironically, married religious people who want to ban gay marriage are in a catch-22: The very fact that they want the government to give them civil rights as married couples is the same desire that made it possible for gay marriage to become the issue it is today.

My tentative solution to this is probably not going to make anyone completely happy, but here it is: Separate the terms, and re-define marriage using two terms instead of one. "Civil marriage", unless a compelling non-religious reason can be found, should be available to all who seek it. There are those who think they have compelling non-religious reasons... I beg to differ with them, primarily because they deal in straw men, red herrings, and question begging.

As for "religious marriage" (Christian or otherwise), each religion has always retained the right to perform their ceremonies as they see fit. Many Christian churches will not marry same-sex couples, and that is their right. Other Christian churches will. But ultimately the debate in the Christian Church over gay marriage is an "in-house" issue. What the state decides about civil marriage for gays, lesbians, or anyone else is not our primary concern. If the Church can't get our own house in order, we have no business trying to dictate the actions of someone else's house... unless we have strong reason to believe that (to use a played out metaphor) they are going to burn their house down, and all the houses in the village with it.

But, since the jury is still deliberating (at least for the anti-gay-marriage folks) on whether gay people in the U.S. even really pose a threat to our society at all, it is disingenuous for Christians or other religious folks to attempt to limit civil marriage under the guise of defending religious marriage. More could be said about this, much more, but that is my rant for tonight.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 2

In my previous post, I briefly introduced Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire, and described the process of imitation taking place as each person seeks to fill what they lack within themselves by imitating another, or many others. That we all do this seems to be easily established. But what is the outcome of our human mimesis (imitation)? One of the primary, and most damaging, outcomes, says Girard, is violence. Here, again, I am taking quotes from Depoortere's book:

"In all the varieties of desire examined by us, we have encountered not only a subject and an object but a third presence as well: the rival... the rival desires the same object as the subject... the subject desires the object because the rival desires it."

Here we see the beginnings of Girard's take on violence. Because we all seek to imitate someone else, a person we take as a model, it is inevitable that conflict will arise. Why? Because now two people are seeking to possess the same object, and since all objects are finite, they cannot be possessed by everyone equally. Many times, the same object cannot be possessed by two people at all. This experience creates a conflict of desires. As Depoortere puts it: "... if I can get rid of the other [the rival], I shall be able to [acquire] the object that will provide with the fullness of being. But, of course, the other thinks the same of me..."

So, according to Girard, all forms of human violence can be traced back to this primordial conflict, which is something that evolved in humans beyond the level of mere instinct. Unlike most (if not all) animals, who fight over needs based in instinctual desires, we fight over any object (including other persons) that we think will give us a more fulfilling existence. Violence is, unfortunately, birthed from mimetic desire.

But there is more. Says Girard, at some point, two early ancestors of humanity fought, and one killed the other...

"There is some commotion. But no, [the victim] does not move anymore. He does nothing anymore... The other apes break off their fights and come to take a look. A circle is formed around the deceased. Silence... Time after time, the same happens. There is total disorder, a lot of aggression and violence; and suddenly... someone is killed. Violence stops, and everybody comes to take a look at the deceased... Suddenly, disorder disappears and an ordered structure comes into being: a circle around the deceased. Moreover, disorder and violence do not return immediately. The circle dissolves, and the apes take up again their daily routine. Rest has come back in the group."

Here is where Girard's theory, in my opinion, becomes very interesting. Essentially, as he describes it, what develops in the early stages of human evolution (pre-historical human society) is a response to violence that takes on the form of a victim. The killing of just one person halts, at least temporarily, the violence brought on by the mimetic conflict. And so, we have the birth of the "scapegoat."

What is the scapegoat? The scapegoat is the further development of the human need to escape the violence created by mimetic desire. The scapegoat is experienced as something that alleviates violence. So, it becomes possible for early humans to take the next "logical" step - if a scapegoat halts violence, then designating a scapegoat beforehand might actually prevent violence from occurring.

It is Girard's hypothesis that such an understanding of human development can explain nearly every aspect of human culture. Religious rituals, for example, are one of the oldest known human activities. What do all these early rituals involve? Some sort of sacrifice. Why? Because it was understood that sacrifice somehow halts violence (in this case, the violence of the gods, as experienced in natural suffering). This evolutionary response is so deeply ingrained in human beings that it affects us all, even without our realization.

Girard's theory has many profound potential applications, which I will not address here. But, in my third and final post, I will summarize Girard's connection of mimetic theory with Christ (for Girard is, in fact, a Christian). Christ, he states, is the reversal of violence. More to come...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 1

I've been reading a new book by Frederiek Depoortere, Christ In Postmodern Philosophy, which describes the various Christological impulses found in the writings of contemporary thinkers Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard, and Slavoj Zizek. It's enjoyable and highly readable, if you are interested in any of these thinkers and how they might relate to the Christian religion. I am well into the section on Girard, and I thought I'd post a bit about his "mimetic theory," which is an anthropological theory that I find fascinating and, overall, quite compelling. Here are a few quotes from Girard (and my comments) that describe "mimetic theory," taken from pp. 35-42 of Depoortere's book:

"There is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behaviour that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish."

"Mimesis" or "mimetic" basically means imitation/to imitate. All humans imitate other humans. Why do all humans imitate other humans? Because we all lack something, and we look to others who we think might help us fill this lack. Girard calls this something "being," which indicates that who we are, and who we might be, is not something directly accessible to ourselves. We need others to help us ascertain that which we lack. This might be something physical, emotional, educational, vocational, rational... we all seek ways to become more than what we currently are, whether we realize it or not.

"[A person] desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being."

So, each of us looks to another (or many others) to find that which we seem to lack in ourselves, and then each tries to imitate the other in an attempt to fill what is lacking. However, in doing this, a person will slowly begin to come into conflict with the other, because now they are competing for the same fullness of being. We will return to this in Part 2. There is also the realization that, each time, the object one finds does not ultimately satisfy all that one lacks. So there is the danger of a person endlessly desiring some object (a HUGE problem! Whatever we objectify essentially controls us...), which can, in its radical form, actually turn into a desire NOT to find the object. Girard poetically describes this search:

"A man sets out to discover a treasure he believes is hidden under a stone; he turns over stone after stone but finds nothing. He grows tired of such a futile undertaking but the treasure is too precious for him to give up. So he begins to look for a stone which is too heavy to lift - he places all his hopes in that stone and he will waste all his remaining strength on it..."

In other words, we humans are prone to place so much hope in finding something that will satisfy all of our desires that we may actually look for ways to develop patterns of thought and/or behavior that actually make it impossible for us to find that thing we think will satisfy - because of the fear that when we find it, it won't actually fulfill what we lack after all. So we build up structures that, in effect, keep us from finding what we're really looking for. This has many intriguing connections to religion that I won't explore here, but leave for you to consider.

Additionally, though, there is an even greater danger that stems from human mimesis. It is violence. And that will be the subject of Part 2...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The danger of subordinating theology to philosophy...

"The danger in correlating theology with this or that philosophy (or any other discipline) is that of domesticating the divine, of reducing the strange new world of the Bible to this-worldly terms, of exchanging the scandal of the cross for the pottage of intellectual respectability. This is as much a danger in postmodernity as in modernity. Whereas the modern inclination was to exaggerate divine immanence, postmodern theologies tend to stress the "otherness" of God and to exaggerate divine transcendence. Their "God" is so "beyond" language and categories as to become amorphous... Yet Christians confess that Jesus Christ is God in human form; far from being amorphous, God has taken the form of a servant. The life of the man Jesus Christ is the criterion for understanding the identity of God." - Kevin Vanhoozer

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dalferth on the transcendence of persons...

"I only understand a person if I understand how she understands herself. This I cannot understand unless she communicates it to me. But what she communicates... is different from her own self-understanding, and what she communicates I can only understand in my own terms and not in others. Just as I cannot experience her experiences, I cannot understand her self-understanding in her own terms...

But there is a more basic opaqueness - not only of someone to someone else but also of a person to herself. For why should we assume that she understands herself at all, or better than I do? I have no direct access to myself as a person. Even if we distinguish, as Augustine does, between se cogitare (reflecting on oneself) and se nosse (knowing oneself), I not only need not be aware of what I know of myself... but will never fully become aware of it... if there is always more to be known about myself than I can become aware of, there is no definite limit to what I can become aware of about myself...

In short, since I am not fully accessible to myself, I am transcendent not only to others, but also to myself, and precisely this opens up possibilities for interpretation and understanding."

- Ingolf Dalferth

Sunday, October 19, 2008

On the church and our current political system...

"When I have the good fortune to find myself in a situation where part of the ruler's language of justification is the claim to have the consent of the governed, then I can use the machinery of democracy and I am glad to do so. But I do not therefore believe that I am governing myself or that 'we' as 'the people' are governing ourselves. We are still governed by an elite, most of whose decisions are not submitted to the people for approval. Of all the forms of oligarchy, democracy is the least oppressive, since it provides the strongest language of justification and therefore of critique which the subjects may use to mitigate its oppressiveness." - John Howard Yoder

"The church's identity is not formed by reaction against the state nor by its contribution to the state. The church remains a universal community, always embodied in a specific locality, that is never subordinated to some grand imperial scheme...

Yoder never assumed that the church was in a position to make democratic regimes or ensure their rule. Instead, he warns us that asking how the church contributes to the nation-state may itself tempt us to faithlessness...

Yoder sought to redirect our attention away from the question 'How shall we as Christians rule?' He did this precisely because Jesus himself redirects us away from this question. The appropriate question is how the church endures the powers." - Stephen Long

Friday, October 17, 2008

Why I love

...although it does add to my overall skepticism about our political system... :-P


Spin and hype were apparent, once again, at the third and final debate between McCain and Obama:

- McCain claimed the liberal group ACORN "is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history ... maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." In fact, a Republican prosecutor said of the biggest ACORN fraud case to date: "[T]his scheme was not intended to permit illegal voting." He said $8-an-hour workers turned in made-up voter registration forms rather than doing what ACORN paid them to do.

- McCain said "Joe the plumber" faced "much higher taxes" under Obama’s tax plan and would pay a fine under Obama's health care plan if he failed to provide coverage for his workers. But Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher would pay higher taxes only if the business he says he wants to buy puts his income over $200,000 a year, and his small business would be exempt from Obama’s requirement to provide coverage for workers.

(Update Oct. 16: ABC News reported the morning after the debate that Wurzelbacher admitted to a reporter that he won't actually make enough from his new plumbing business to pay Obama's higher tax rates. ABC said his admission "would seem to indicate that he would be eligible for an Obama tax cut.")

- Obama repeated a dubious claim that his health care plan will cut the average family’s premiums by $2,500 a year. Experts have found that figure to be overly optimistic.

- McCain claimed that Obama’s real "object" is a government-run, single-payer health insurance system like those in Canada or England. The McCain campaign points to a quote from five years ago, when Obama told a labor gathering that he was "a proponent of a single-payer health care program." But Obama has since qualified his enthusiasm for Canadian-style health care, and his current proposal is nothing like that.

- Obama incorrectly claimed all of McCain’s ads had been "negative." That was true for one recent week, but not over the entire campaign. And at times Obama has run a higher percentage of attack ads than McCain.

- McCain described Colombia as the "largest agricultural importer of our products." Actually, Canada imports the most U.S. farm products, and Colombia is far down the list.

- Obama strained to portray himself as willing to break ranks with fellow Democrats. His prime example was his vote for a bill that was supported by 18 Democrats and opposed by 26. Congressional Quarterly rates him as voting with his party 97 percent of the time since becoming a U.S. senator.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


I have taken the GRE and I feel fairly satisfied with the results... preparing for the test (which I took Monday) explains why I haven't posted much in the last week, in case anyone was wondering. Now it's on to the PhD applications, specifically developing my purpose statement. Woohoo!

Monday, October 6, 2008

God, power and love...

Power and Love. Love and Power. This dichotomy is the source of much of the confusion over, frustration with, and hatred of the Christian religion that exists today. Nearly every major struggle within Christianity has to do with, in some sense, the debate over which of these two divine attributes ought to retain primacy and why. Because, as most theologians seem to agree, the orthodox understanding of the Christian God must include both omnipotence (power) and omnibenevolence (love). Certainly there are some who re-define the terms, so as to escape the dilemma, and others simply reject the traditional perspective outright. But if we are attempting to remain as non-heretical as possible (if that's even possible!), we have to face this difficulty.

The problem of evil is a prime example. Do we say God is Love, and downplay God's power by arguing that true Love would never allow the horrific evils we see around us (i.e. God must not be powerful enough to stop all evil)? Or do we argue for God's Power/Sovereignty, and suggest that God's Love is beyond our understanding, and that God allows evil to happen for an ultimately good reason? This, of course, implies that God's definition of "Love" is extremely different from ours. It requires drastically re-thinking our definition of Love and, if taken too far, leads to an untrustworthy, capricious deity.

Traditionally, the gift of human free will, which is seen as a good thing, has offered a possible path out of the "slough of despond" that comes from asking these questions. But this raises a host of other questions that often seem to do nothing more than push the argument back to a non-human level (i.e. Did the devil have free will? If so, why did the devil reject God?). In the end, our human minds simply cannot grasp the true character of the God in whom we are asked to place our faith. So, there is always a lingering question: How do we hold together both God's omnipotence and Gods' omnibenevolence? Is there a way to understand this, or do we have no other option besides simple fideism at this point?

I am not proposing a solution; I am merely asking the question -- Which way do you lean? Do you tend to emphasize God's Love, or God's Power? Why?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

holding heaven and earth together...

I am a part of a "small group" at the church I attend, Bethany Community Church. We meet every Wed. night for dinner, discussion, and prayer. Lately we've been discussing the pastor's sermon series on The Apostle's Creed. Last night we talked about the section of the creed that presents God as "maker of heaven and earth."

One of the questions we considered had to do with our own approach to God, and whether we relate more to the "spiritual" side of things (considering God's attributes, prayer, listening for the Spirit, contemplation, etc) or the more "earthy" side (seeing God's handiwork in nature, interaction with other people, acts of service, etc). This led to a consideration of the challenge we have as Christians in holding both "heaven" and "earth" together in our faith.

Traditionally, much of Christianity has focused on the spiritual at the expense of the material. The common belief among many Christians is that the natural world is somehow a bad thing, and what Christians need to do is focus on rescuing souls from this sinful world and preparing them for heaven. But, recently (as has happened from time to time), many Christians have recaptured the understanding of creation as good. All that God created is good, and therefore has value, even though it has been corrupted by sin.

Instead of viewing the natural world, and our earthly bodies, as something that doesn't matter, a proper understanding of God's creative and redemptive work takes into account that just as God created everything good, God is also in the process of redeeming everything and making it good again - in fact, making it even better than before! (For a good description of what this restoration might look like, check out N.T. Wright's recent book, Surprised by Hope.)

So, what does this mean for us, as individual Christians, living in Seattle (at least our small group is ;-D) in 2008? There were two themes that stood out to me from our conversation:

1. Holding "heaven" and "earth" together means taking seriously both our responsibility to God and our responsibility to creation (including other people). It is not enough for us to be concerned with "evangelizing the lost"; our lives as followers of Christ should reflect the overall mission of Christ - to be involved in the transformation of all things, through God's power and love.

We do not "accept Jesus" and then relegate him to the "spiritual" section of our lives; Jesus captures us, and transforms us into his likeness, and we become agents of that transformation to the rest of creation. This means re-thinking our responsibility not only to other people, but to the earth as well, because as human beings we are inextricably connected to the natural order.

2. As Christians, although we do have a responsibility to live as agents of transformation, we do not live that way out of guilt or a need to perform, but out of gratitude. Instead of looking at the world as something that "needs fixing", we rejoice because we believe that God is always already in the process of fixing the world, and we get to be a part of that process!

This brings me to a quick point about the nature of stewardship. Often, the word "dominion" (used in Genesis and elsewhere in Scripture) is taken as an opportunity to manipulate creation for our own advantages. But the Hebrew word actually means something more akin to "responsible care for" the creation. If we are to care responsibly for creation, how does this change the way we treat people, animals, land, resources, etc? I don't think it's difficult to see that, in many ways, Christians have not been responsible care-givers to creation. This is something that we must change.

Of course, we will never succeed on our own, without God's involvement. But we do believe God is involved! And we don't need to beat ourselves up when we fail. But we do need to examine our motives, and see where we have neglected our responsibilities as agents of transformation, and then step out in faith, and begin to live in joyful hope as people who believe that God is making all things new.

Calvin and Hobbes... and theology... :-)

Lately, Dr. Richard Beck has been posting a series of enlightening and hilarious entries on "The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes." Here is the latest entry. Great stuff!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Evans on Kierkegaard and logical contradiction...

"One important property of the absolute paradox for Kierkegaard is that it must be unique; the incarnation must somehow qualify as the absurd. However, there is nothing unique about a logical contradiction and no principled way to say that one is 'more contradictory' or 'absurd' than any other.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how a logical contradiction could serve as the 'boundary' or 'limit' of reason as the incarnation is supposed to do. To recognize a 'square circle' as a formal contradiction one must have a fairly clear grasp of the concepts of 'square' and 'circle'. In one sense at least, therefore, such a concept falls within the competence of reason; if it did not, reason could not properly classify it as a logical contradiction. The point of the incarnation, according to Kierkegaard, is that it is a concept that reason cannot understand.

Human reason is baffled both by human nature and by God. It is further baffled by the conjunction of the two concepts, but not because reason has a clear understanding of either what it means to be human or what it means to be God. The incarnation may appear or seem to human reason to be a logical contradiction, but it is not known to be such, and the believer does not think it is a formal contradiction."

C. Stephen Evans - Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account

Thursday, September 25, 2008

human being and transcending...

"Our way of being in the world is best understood in terms of possible ways of being. We may share much in common with others, and we would not be who we are independently of our histories. Yet in some sense we seem also able to transcend or go beyond these boundaries. We are both fact and possibility Heidegger would say. Our being is something to be achieved; it is something to be gained or lost. In this sense we appear to be different from other beings in the universe. As beings of potentiality, beings on the way, we are always transcending boundaries, moving into new possibilities of being. We are temporal beings. We exist in the present involved in the heritage of what has been. But we also exist in the future which is coming towards us. Our being is such that in the present we remember the past and anticipate the future. We are becoming as individuals and as entangled in the history of humankind."

Eugene Long

Sunday, September 21, 2008

cleanliness is not next to godliness... :-)

In Luke 8:43-48 (also found in Matthew 9 and Mark 5) we read the story of a woman in a crowd, who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years and touched Jesus' cloak, hoping to be healed. In reading this passage as part of a devotional the other day, I saw something I had never noticed before: This story gives us a profound insight into Jesus' approach to the "unclean" in our midst. In Jewish culture, to be unclean meant that one was, at least for a time, unacceptable to God, and could not enter the temple to worship. Having any contact with one who was unclean would make you unclean as well. The woman must have known that touching Jesus would make him unclean - and that was a big risk to take. Yet she chose, in her desperation to find healing, to touch him anyway.

The implications here are, I think, truly life-changing. Previously, I had read about Jesus' response to the unclean -- how he ate with "sinners," how he touched lepers and healed them, etc. But I had seen all of that as taking place on Jesus' own terms -- HE was the one who decided to make contact with the unclean. But this story makes it clear that God's healing power and grace is available even when it seems that God is not initiating the contact, or even paying attention to us. In the mere fact of God becoming human, God is already choosing to make that healing available to all humanity. God's transformative power is not diminished by his coming into contact with our unclean world, and it won't be diminished by any of us.

I think sometimes we worry that if we come to Jesus just as we are, we will "taint" Jesus with our uncleanliness. We think that God will be angry with us for getting things all dirty and messy. So we either walk away feeling rejected, or we try to make ourselves as clean as possible, providing all sorts of reasons why we aren't dirty after all. I think, unfortunately, the church bears most of the blame for this attitude. The church has too often taught that there are some people who are worthy of entering into the community of worship, and some who are not. There is an underlying fear of making Jesus unclean. For many people, this fear keeps them from coming to Christ, because they have been fed the lie that God does not accept the unclean.

The opposite is true! Not only is Jesus NOT made unclean by the woman, he heals her and makes her clean! So approach, reach out, and touch Jesus, no matter how "unclean" you may be, and see what happens. It may not be what you expect, but if you are willing to risk "making Jesus unclean," you may find that something miraculous will happen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

a basic theological notion that is often forgotten...

General revelation - that is, the type of knowledge we might gain regarding metaphysical or noumenal (to use Kant's term) aspects of reality using reason, science, etc - can never take us farther than the development of an abstract notion referring to the possible existence of some sort of reality or being which we would call "God." If that God is, in fact, the God revealed in Scripture (and ultimately, in Jesus Christ) then we can only know this through special revelation, which only comes to us from God through the gift of faith. At least, as far as we know, this is the only option. Even believing this is an act of faith. We cannot rely on historical, scientific, sociological, philosophical, or even theological research to bring about a genuine knowledge of God's essential reality and relationship to creation. This is something that only God can do; our part is merely to be open to that revelation when it comes, instead of closing ourselves off to special revelation due to the fact that it is not historically, scientifically, or otherwise verifiable. Whenever Christians forget this, they fall into a trap that ultimately leads to either fundamental self-contradiction or disbelief.

Friday, September 12, 2008

a glimpse into my political cynicism...

I don't post too often about political happenings, but here is an entry that I resonate with: it's really sad (though not surprising) to see that Christ has been hijacked for the agendas of both parties, and I'm really not looking forward to either candidate becoming president at this point. I don't want to be a do-nothing cynic, but I agree with Halden's post, it's really about changing your local community at this point; national politics is nothing more than a popularity contest to see who gets to steer the ship for a while.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

thoughts on the stability of God and Scripture...

Over at my pastor's blog, I posted a response to a discussion on what it means when doctrine changes. I am re-posting it here, slightly modified:

I agree with the statement "the only constant is change" from a philosophical perspective. I think of Heraclitus' words, "You cannot step into the same river twice..."

Of course, from a theological perspective, there is one true "constant": God. But, since none of us can grasp God's essence, we rely upon what we believe to be God's true revelation: Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. So, in effect, this revelation becomes our "constant." (thinking of LOST, anyone? :-D)

Actually, Scripture becomes more of a constant than Jesus, because it is still tangible. Jesus is primarily known via the witness of Scripture. Sure, there are spiritual experiences, but those are usually not sufficient foundations for doctrine. And that's really what we're dealing with here, right? What is the true Christian doctrine? And do we know it?

So, the "unchangeable" God (however you define unchangeable) is known to us primarily third-hand: God -> Jesus -> Bible. Of course, we believe the Spirit of God flows through all this, so God is known "first-hand" by faith, but if we're talking about tangible knowledge, i.e. knowledge that we can actually see, Scripture is the most obvious choice.

So, it seems to me that what most people mean when they ask "Does God change?" is really something like: "What is unchangeable about the Bible?" The assumption is that if we can figure that out, we'll know what is unchangeable about God. But is this really a fair assumption?

What if we found out (as we already have) that statements in the Bible are not always literally true? Does that mean that our faith is no longer solid? I think most Christians would say, clearly, no. What if all the available evidence someday suggests that the Bible is completely false (this seems unlikely)? Does that mean God, or God's Word, has changed? Do we have to cling rigidly to inerrancy in order to save the Bible from corruption? I don't think so. Because God is not dependent upon the Bible, the Bible is dependent upon God.

It seems to me that the Bible gives us an outline of God's Truth, and we humans have, over the centuries, filled in the gaps, with various answers. Some of those have resonated with the Christian faith as a whole and have remained with us, some have not. (Obviously, if we got rid of Jesus' divinity, Christianity would be rather vapid.) But if our faith in God is dependent upon the complete stability of the Bible, we will be disappointed, because the Bible will always be, to some degree, a reflection of the people who are interpreting it. It's just unavoidable.

This doesn't mean that we should just give up and announce that "everything is relative" or whatever. It means, rather, that we must decide where we will stand, based upon what seems the most true to us and the whole Church, and live there, relying upon God's justice and mercy to ultimately make everything right in the long run. It means that we live with both grace and conviction. God's Word (properly understood) and the gift of faith - both being extensions of God, are NOT changeable, but everything finite is, and since we are finite humans, we will have to live with the tension of both certainty and uncertainty at work in our lives.

Christians have only two covenants to work with: God's covenant with Israel, and the new covenant in Jesus Christ. So, we can't try to appeal to some "newer" covenant. Everything we believe has to be guided by the new covenant with Christ. So, what does that covenant look like? What are Jesus' main themes? What was his purpose? What did he tell his followers to do?

While we may never know true stability, answering those questions will guide us as we negotiate this ever-changing world. If we believe that, we won't need to fear change, because we are trusting not in our own stability, or even the stability of Scripture, but in the stability of God.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

what it means to speak truthfully...

"Our world is no longer made up of self-contained homogenous societies living apart from one another. Men and women from a wide variety of traditions have been torn from their original
homes and have settled in foreign, even hostile, environments, where they have to live side by side and adapt to one another. Friction between them is inevitable... everything must be done to re-create the social fabric and allow the people living in this [situation] to gain confidence and recognition through peaceful activities.

For this purpose, it is indispensable to speak truthfully. This means not giving into fantasies, but not shying away from looking the facts in the face. Politically correct discourse is responsible for a great deal of hypocrisy and ignorance. Having said this, one also must be careful not to attack the wrong target, and mistake the awkward defense of outcasts and the poor for the enemy. On the pretext of avoiding the politically correct there is a danger of lapsing into the politically abject. And we have nothing to gain from this."

Tzvedan Todorov, from an interview in Critical Inquiry Magazine

Thursday, September 4, 2008

ruminations on the death penalty and violence...

Over at his blog, my pastor recently posted an entry on the struggle to understand Scriptural mandates regarding various ethical attitudes that many Christians hold onto (abortion, capital punishment, etc.). I added in my 2 cents about capital punishment, and I'm enjoying the discussion. I'm sure other comments would also be welcome. So, if you're interested, check it out.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Caputo on Jesus' crucifixion and theo-politics...

Although I have a few reservations about the following statement from a theological perspective, I think that the challenge posed is nevertheless quite important... curious to hear others' thoughts on this:

"The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics, but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlines sovereignty. The call that issues from the crucified body of Jesus solicits our response, for it is we who have mountains to move by our faith and we who have enemies to move by our love. It is we who have to make the weakness of God stronger than the power of the world."

(John D. Caputo, from "What Would Jesus Deconstruct?")

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

dumb and dumber...

In case you weren't fed up by all the stupidity in the American political system, here's a video clip to depress you even more... Chris Matthews interviewing some women who are "Clintons 4 McCain"... uhm... right. What's really sad is that this is not an isolated incident - I've actually had conversations with people like this before. I really worry sometimes that, no matter who is in the White House, our country is going to go down the tubes simply because of the ever increasing level of stupidity among the American public...

a new CD I'm really enjoying...

If you enjoy "alternative" (what a generic term that has become...) music that centers around the female vocalist/composer, then you owe it to yourself to check out the new release from My Brightest Diamond, called "A Thousand Shark's Teeth." Shara Worden, who is classically-trained, and records on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label, has recorded some of the most beautiful, creative, and enjoyable songs I've heard this year. Sure, at times the compositions are a bit reminiscent of Bjork (which, IMO, isn't a bad thing!), but they remain unique and memorable enough to avoid any accusations of too overtly wearing their influences on their collective sleeve. Instead, fans of the aforementioned Icelandic pixie, Portishead, Delerium, Lisa Gerrard, and Denali will find this album to be a veritable wealth of lovely cascading melodies and softly drifting tones that evoke a wide range of emotions ultimately leaving the listener feeling peaceful, content, and ready for another listen.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Kevin Hart on prayer...

"To pray proves nothing about God's existence, yet the act presumes that one is attending to God... perhaps because a limit has been reached and all other possibilities have vanished or corroded. No one inaugurates a relationship with God: prayer is always a response, even though it can feel like a response to silence. This is important, for no one can petition a hypothesis or possibility. Some people posit God as absolutely real in the act of prayer. For most others, I suspect, prayer is accompanied by a hope that the very act makes sense, and that hope is itself an unspoken prayer."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Wow... (shakes head in disbelief)

Just saw a new commercial for the Discover Card... announcer says:

"We are a nation of consumers... and there's nothing wrong with that. There's so much cool stuff out there to buy..."

Ummm... I guess I really have to hand it to the writer(s) of the commercial -- they have definitely gotten past all the fluff and right to the point. But a part of me just feels really lousy... Want the truth about our culture? There it is. Great. And we've all been sucked in. Ugh.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A discussion on the "Self" and gay marriage...

In case any of you are interested, I have interacted briefly with a discussion on The Other Journal over the last couple days. One of their bloggers has written an interesting post on the positive nature of gay relationships, and I've responded a couple times. I've enjoyed the discussion so far, perhaps you may as well. That is all.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Peperzak on modern philosophy...

"...the philosophy that still dominates our institutions and manners... combines the following convictions:

1. Reason, as interpreted in the modern logic and methodology of rationality, is the supreme and and sovereign judge of reflective speech or writing.

2. Reason needs experience.

3. The experience that counts in the search for truth is a kind of experience that is, or can be had, by all people who have the normal use of the human senses... Paradigmatic for this kind of experience are indubitable sensations and scientific observation.

One basic element of the concrete quest for truth is emphatically silenced in these principles: the element I have called faith or trust. Modern philosophy ignores the decisive role of its own faith in reason, in science, and in certain criteria for evidence and trustworthy experience...

...modern philosophy does not show much interest in the religious, moral, and aesthetic spirituality from which a well- or badly-oriented, enthusiastic, moody, lazy, overheated, deathly boring, or hopeful thinking emerges... such a neglect has dramatic consequences for the course of a human life. If the practice of philosophy is a way of life, it cannot ignore the sources from which it in fact draws its energy, its desires and hopes and interests, its perseverance in the search, and so on.

...some schools continue to believe that we should restrict ourselves to indubitable impressions. They prefer not to consider the conditions of those more interesting experiences without which it is impossible to talk about genuine beauty, moral virtues, authenticity, love, phenomenality, and being."

Adriaan Peperzak - The Quest For Meaning

Saturday, August 2, 2008

random thoughts on faith...

The one who steps out in faith must, in essence, be willing to forsake everything, including his or her very self, for the sake of the "True Other" in whom the faith is placed. Such willing is, in the final analysis, not possible for the one stepping out; the True Other - which is often called the "object" of the faith - must ultimately make it possible. So, faith is not truly and fully faith unless it is placed in a True Other that can and will bring about its own actuality within the life of the faithful. But what of the delusional person, who is convinced that they have found some True Other, but in fact believes in a falsehood - am I suggesting that they do not have faith? Precisely.

But, what then? How are we to judge genuine faith, when a delusion may apparently lead someone to forsake everything just as surely as the True Other of genuine faith? It is important to remember that there is no reason to assume that a delusional person has forsaken anything of value to them. In fact, for the delusional, it may very well be that the idea of forsaking is the very thing that provides the means by which the delusion of faith is sustained. In other words, the delusional only forsakes something in order to gain something greater; that is, the reinforcement of the delusion.

Unfortunately, this description also seems to apply to many who claim to be true believers. How are we to tell the difference between "false" and "true" faith? There is indeed no way to rationally or empirically verify faith, but neither is there any way to disprove faith. This obviously cuts both ways, for although faith is a personal step which may lead to a True Other, it may also be a step into nothingness or folly. Absurdity... that is Kierkegaard's term. And certainly any action that seems to offer no distinction between Truth and delusion seems quite absurd. But this is the risk of faith. The true person of faith does not forsake in order to gain; the true person of faith forsakes simply for the sake of the True Other. And that risk is very great indeed.

So when a person attempts to be faithful, they must be willing to bear the consequences, to "face the music," so to speak. In seeking to be faithful, one is opened not only to the possibility of ridicule, but also abandonment, forsaking, and the loss of everything - including his or her very self - not in the hope that they will get everything back, or have something better (like "eternal life with Jesus"), but simply because it is proper as an act of faith. If a person makes a decision in faith, that decision will always involve a forsaking. In fact, anyone who claims to be acting in faith but attempts to, at the same time, hold onto their own safety, or freedom, or rights, is not acting in faith at all.

Religious persons who claim to be acting in faith, but are also pursuing some sort of self-serving agenda, are not being faithful. Their faith is betrayed by their own agenda of self-protection... true faith has no self-protective agenda, nor does it attempt to “protect” God, who needs no protection. The mere fact that believers often feel the need to defend their faith, not against real spiritual attacks (by responding in a manner appropriate to faith), but against the banal hatred and slander of the unbeliever, or, even worse, genuine criticism, reveals the lack of faith among those who claim to be faithful.

Indeed, we are, each of us, a mixture of faith and faithlessness. To the extent we, as Christians, have abandoned our agendas for the sake of the Truth of Christ, we are faithful. To the extent that we still hold onto our own agendas, we are faithless. And our faithlessness can only be healed by God... and believing this is an act of faith as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Friday, July 25, 2008

Paul Helm, Scripture, and "control beliefs"...

The other day I came across a relatively recent blog entry by Paul Helm, a well-known (conservative) Christian professor of philosophy. In an online essay, he critiques a particular theological method as being unsound. Although he is writing primarily to respond to Peter Enns' recent book, "Inspiration and Incarnation," his comments - I think - have a more wide-reaching application, and therefore are worth considering, whether one is a biblical scholar, a philosopher, or any person seeking to follow Christ.

Helm begins by saying:

"Questions of method are fundamental to the problems that arise in formulating any Christian doctrine, including the doctrine of Scripture. Take, for example, the doctrine of divine providence. We are all familiar with an array of evils - a child dying of inoperable cancer, the activities of international terrorists, of Herr Hitler, of rapists and murderers, of volcanoes and tsunamis and hurricanes. Suppose that we take these into account in our efforts to construct a Christian doctrine of divine providence. How should these data help us? To what extent should they help us? Ought one to concentrate wholly upon Scripture’s own clear statements of the extent and character and purpose of divine providence, or also to shape that doctrine by taking into account statements of the evils that all too obviously confront us all? Do these data about evil carry equal weight with the statements of Scripture? Are they to control the statements of Scripture?

The (consistently Christian) answer to these questions should be obvious. We formulate our doctrine from attending (no doubt fallibly) only to Scripture’s own explicit statements on the matter, returning time and again to check and modify our first thoughts by the data of Scripture in a never-ending iterative process. And then we wrestle with the problems in the light of our understanding of these statements. In the mercy of God, the doctrine (along with other doctrines) will illuminate the problems; the problems never control the doctrine."

While I find much of value in Helm's explanation, and agree with his statements in principle, I do have questions about some of his presuppositions and would like to question a few of these underlying assumptions. I suppose he may have already responded to similar questions, perhaps in a book or article I haven't read, but for now I will pose my questions here for the sake of fostering dialogue.

Helm's primary concern appears to be that Christians often let the problems stemming from modern critical research, as well as our own existential dilemmas, affect "how we think about doctrine," and argues that such a stance is always dangerous to a greater or lesser degree. His response to this approach, in essence, is the traditional Christian response: We begin with revelation - primarily Scripture, but also accepted doctrines, etc - and use those as our guides to deal with the issues raised by research and experience. We interpret non-revelatory information through our understanding of God's revelation, not vice versa. Helm, following Wolterstorff, calls these our "control beliefs." And, of course, he is right... to a point. My question is how Helm (and those who share his perspective) expects this to be done in an unambiguous manner.

Right off the bat, Helm concedes that this is not an either/or question. He rightly points out that the questions must be: How should the data help us, and to what extent? This implies that experience, reason, research, etc. will have some role to play in shaping Christian belief. But Helm does not clarify here (probably because it would take too long!) what that role might be. Further, he intimates that the role of non-revelatory sources ought to be minimal, in order to eliminate the danger that comes with them. But can't this be taken too far as well? Is the elimination of danger even an option in coming to a realization about God? Isn't faith, by its very nature, a dangerous process? Is attempting to make Christian belief "safe" really the best approach? Isn't an honest attempt to hold both revelation and experience in tension a more faithful way to go?

Further, Helm suggests that non-revelatory sources ought to have a minimal role, given the clarity of the message within Scripture. For my part, I am not as convinced as Helm apparently is that Scripture's claims on most topics are "clear" and "explicit." Doesn't all reading of Scripture involve a great deal of interpretation? As such, it seems that Helms' mention of the fallibility in formulating doctrine ought be highlighted. But here we see the dilemma in its most basic form: If fallibility exists in the formulation of Christian beliefs, and Christians have faith in the priority and inerrancy (which is such a loaded word that I find it obtuse) of Scripture, then clearly the problem cannot be with the Bible. The problem must be with our interpretation(s) of the Bible. But then who decides what a correct interpretation might be?

The traditional Christian answer has been that the Holy Spirit, throughout history, has guided the Church (as a whole) toward an ever-more-true understanding of revelation, including Scripture, and as that takes place, the Church develops doctrines which become the ground for further examination and development - the basic truths serve as control beliefs for the rest of Christian thought. Many of these were set out by the early Church and continue to hold for Christians today. But more and more, many sincere Christians are beginning to think that perhaps some of these doctrines/control beliefs are not, and have never been, as monolithic or set in stone as other Christians have claimed.

For example, with regard to biblical studies, Helm states:

"The Church holds fast to the divinely-breathed character of Scripture while recognising its all too obvious human properties. The books are breathed by God and authored by men. Such a confession throws up difficulties... But – if we are to be consistently and thoroughly Christian – these difficulties may perplex us but we should patiently await their resolution in a way that is consistent with the Christian view of Holy Scripture, the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, while all the while holding fast to that doctrine."

But this is either extremely obscure, or seems to create a catch-22. On the one hand, we are asked to "hold fast" to the "divinely-breathed character" of the Bible and await "resolution" of difficulties... But isn't the problem precisely that we either don't know, or can't agree, on what it means to "hold fast," or what the Scripture's "divinely-breathed character" might be?

Would Helm agree that Christians who view parts of the Bible as historically and scientifically non-literal can still hold fast to its divinely-breathed character? Would he accede the possibility that the writers of Scripture, and perhaps even Jesus Christ himself, might have thought things that were not factually true? And, if so, could any of those thoughts have been included in the writings which became the Bible? Does this diminish Scripture's divinely-breathed character somehow? And, if so, what about obvious biblical "errors" with regard to cosmology or biology? Do they diminish it? (I would assume Helm's answer to this last question would be "no", but this only highlights the complexity of the issue.)

Further, how can he say that we should wait patiently for resolution "in a way that is consistent with... the teaching of Christ and the Apostles..." when it is that very teaching which is the source of much of our confusion and conflict?

Helm, quoting J. I. Packer, rightly reminds us of the unavoidable mystery in any attempt to develop Christian doctrine:

"We must be clear as to the nature of our task. Our aim is to formulate a biblical doctrine; we are to appeal to Scripture for information about itself, just as we should appeal to it for information on any other doctrinal topic. That means that our formulation will certainly not give us a final or exhaustive account of its subject. All doctrines terminate in mystery; for they deal with the works of God, which man in this world cannot fully comprehend, nor has God been pleased fully to explore."

Helm then states: "The point to stress here is Packer’s observation that the doctrine of Scripture is to be derived from Scripture itself. The doctrine’s lack of finality arises from the mysterious way in which, in the production of Scripture, the divine concurs with the human."

While I agree heartily with Helm and Packer on this point, I wonder if any of us really grasp what this entails? For clearly, we are not content with mystery. In fact, it could be argued that Christianity has made every attempt to clarify the mystery of God's revelation... and that this is not always such a bad thing. It seems that there has been, and always will be, a necessity for us to take out as much of the mystery as possible, in order to develop systems of doctrine that provide structure for the masses of laypersons who seek guidance from godly leaders.

However, the flipside is that these very systems are wrapped up in contradiction and confusion, due to the fallible nature of the systematizers. If we are truly going to embrace the mystery of doctrine, which is an extension of the mystery of God, then it seems we ought to admit the possibility that each one of us has gotten quite a bit wrong. This does not mean we have to simply agree to disagree, or become relativists. But perhaps it might mean, for example, that Calvinists would feel free to admit that 5-point Calvinism does not have a lock on doctrine, and that God's way of doing things may not fit into that paradigm as much as they would like. The same is true of Arminianism, or any other division within the Christian faith.

Most Christians would probably agree with me on this point. But, then, what does that say about our "control beliefs?" From what I can tell, here we have reached the root of the problem. This is really a disagreement between those whose control belief is something like, "God has revealed X to me through Scripture, the Church, etc. and therefore everything else follows from that..." and those whose control belief is something like, "Well, X seems to be what God has revealed, but given that I am a fallible human being, I could be wrong about a lot of it, and so I want to take care and constantly re-evaluate my beliefs, always remembering that being a Christian means certain things are non-negotiable."

Now, of course, we can then argue over the non-negotiables, and I may have just created something of a false dichotomy, but the issue still remains: given that God's revelation to human beings can only ever be experienced, and given that part of that experience is accepting the priority of certain control beliefs, how do we hold these two seemingly incompatible ideas together? This is the key question, I think.

Maybe a better way to ask this would be: given that I have a profound realization of the reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how do I remain open to further shaping of that reality, without abandoning that which is necessary to the Gospel, and without assuming that I have now been given the final word? If we ever think we've sufficiently answered this question, I would say that we are in a lot of trouble.

I assume that all this raises red flags with many traditional Evangelicals, because it gives the impression that I am positing that there may be value in agnosticism, at least with regard to some facets of Christian belief that are, in certain circles, held to be non-negotiable. I suppose that is what I am doing. But I guess what I wonder is, if we are really honest with ourselves, don't we all do this, to a greater or lesser degree? And is that really such a bad thing?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

more on S.K. and "the present age"...

A couple of days ago I posted the following quote by Soren Kierkegaard (SK):

"A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age that is at the same time reflective and passionless transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance. Instead of culminating in a rebellion, it reduces the inward reality of all relationships to a reflective tension which leaves everything standing but makes the whole of life ambiguous: so that everything continues to exist factually while by a dialectical deceit, privatissame, it supplies a secret interpretation -- that it does not exist."

First, I think it's important to point out that this is a prime example of the kind of creative irony SK often employs in his writing. Yes, it's exaggerated and over-generalized, but his point is made precisely by the over-the-top character of his language. Having said this, I would like to make a couple of observations related to this quote and our own "present age," an age that seems remarkably similar to SK's in certain respects.

I suggest that the quote is, broadly speaking, a surprisingly accurate description of today's Western religious (i.e. Christian) culture. I'm sure it could be applied to other areas of culture as well, but I would like to focus particularly on the religious sphere. It seems there is a very real sense in which the Christianity of our Western culture "does not exist." Ironically, it is not in the manner usually pronounced by the Fundamentalist preachers or culture-warriors, who are always quick to accuse America (for example) of "turning its back on God" or "forgetting that America was founded as a Christian nation" - that latter statement, of course, isn't exactly true, it's been twisted and co-opted for a particular agenda.

But SK's description is different - he is not describing the wholesale rejection of Christianity by a particular culture, but rather a "reflective and passionless" Christianity that - even though it may spare itself the chaos of a truly passionate mindset - in its "reflective tension" has, for all purposes, ceased to exist. It has all the outward appearances of Christianity, but its core has been, in SK's words, "[emptied] of significance."

How is this possible? According to SK, it is because, rather than being persons who are willing to act, we would rather reflect. We are in the privileged position of having the ability to reflect upon the possible outcomes of all our actions, and no longer have to rely upon our passion, that part of us which seems to be the catalyst that leads bold men and women to attempt daring feats of heroism - while at the same time revealing the true character of (as the famous quote by Roosevelt goes) "those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

SK looks around and sees an age full of people who would rather reflect, and defer action, until they have been able to come up with a properly beneficial decision. Certainly there is some wisdom and merit in this... but only up to a certain point. Often, reflection simply leads to no decision at all, because reflecting increases the likelihood of ambiguity (how do I know what's best?), and ambiguity makes us less likely to attempt any course of action, since we do not want to commit ourselves to making a poor choice.

[Side note: G.W. Bush's presidency illustrates this point, I think: On the one hand, there are those who still admire his "tenacity," his willingness to pick a course of action that seems right to him and see it through. On the other hand, when that course of action begins to crumble and seems less wise, it creates not only a backlash against the person, but serves as a caution to other politicians, not to rashly push ahead with any particular plan. Which is probably part of the reason things take so long to accomplish in the political sphere. And, in politics, that may be a good thing! But, ironically, people still want politicians who will make bold claims, hence the current excitement over Obama.]

So, what's my point? Simply this: Much of American Christianity has, I think, become reflective and passionless. We have become so overwhelmed with the vastness of our religion - the thousands of denominations, the variety of doctrinal arguments and sub-arguments, the ebb and flow of particular religious trends - that we have lost much of the boldness that makes faith genuinely passionate. This is certainly understandable, given the massive avalanche of information and opinion (including blogs like this one!) available to us. But in acquiescing to the reflection that comes with our present age, we have also emptied our faith of much of its significance, just as SK predicted.

This is perhaps why so many Christians, at times, see their faith as uneventful, boring, and - let's be honest - useless. We are waiting around for the right moment, trying to determine exactly the best time and place for us to "change the world" for God. We think that if we just have [fill in the blank], then we will finally be able to make a difference. But (as my pastor loves to point out), if we are always waiting for the missing pieces to fall into place before we start living, we will die having never really lived.

The difficulty is that living lives of passionate faith creates a very messy situation. We cannot predict the outcomes of our actions. We don't know if we will end up the hero or the fool. And so, it is often easier to remain paralyzed by reflection than take the leap of faith. I am certainly guilty of this in my own life! But SK would say that if we live our lives that way, we are only fooling ourselves, because the truth is: If our faith is passionless, then our faith does not exist.

Does this mean we should all quit our jobs, stand on street corners, and shout to the world that "Jesus saves!" No, I don't think so. But it does mean that, as Christians, if our faith in Christ really does exist, we have to be willing to make some passionate leaps into the dark, knowing that our finite knowledge may lead us in directions that ultimately are dead ends, and our human weakness will sometimes mean that we fall flat on our faces. But if we really believe that God is with us, and that God is trustworthy, then we can take those risks, trusting that God is right beside us as we jump.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Kierkegaard on the "reflective and passionless" age...

If you read this blog at all, you know I like Kierkegaard! Here is a great quote from his essay, "The Present Age." It's a bit dense, like all of his writing, but it's also full of wit, creativity, and brilliance. I may add my own thoughts to it soon, but for now, think about how this description might fit our current "age" in America (or Western culture as a whole):

"A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age that is at the same time reflective and passionless transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance. Instead of culminating in a rebellion it reduces the inward reality of all relationships to a reflective tension which leaves everything standing but makes the whole of life ambiguous: so that everything continues to exist factually while by a dialectical deceit, privatissame, it supplies a secret interpretation -- that it does not exist."

Monday, July 14, 2008

God help us...

Let's see... how exactly is promoting a church youth group event by giving away a gun *not* a bad idea? Hmmm... maybe I'll drop by this church the next time I visit my parents in Oklahoma City. On the other hand, maybe I won't.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

for thought and discussion...

Here are a few thoughts that I've been mulling around, brought to mind by some recent academic conflicts over the proper way(s) to interpret Scripture:

As the Gospel accounts were turned into written documentation, via the development of the Bible and the establishment of the Creeds, there was (and still is) a great danger that Christianity might be reduced from a response, in faith, to the revelation of God's grace into a systematized pattern of belief which suits one particular interpretation of Scripture or Creeds.

But if God is, in fact, God, and Scripture is God's written revelation about Jesus Christ - who was and is the greatest revelation of God - then we ought to admit at least one thing: The Christian faith will always be bigger (though certainly not smaller) than our systems. It will always reach wider than our ability to grasp or control.

Certainly, structure is important, especially when dealing with a religion that encompasses a full third of the world's population. But structure and control are quite different. One might rightly ask the question, "Then how do we prevent misuse or corruption of the Gospel?" I believe the answer is, ultimately, we don't. God does that. We can (and should) do our best to be faithful with what we've been given, but when another Christian falls outside of the boundaries we consider "orthodox," we need to be very careful to separate our idea of orthodoxy from the faith of that person (assuming they are genuinely seeking God, which is another issue we cannot grasp or control).

Which means we need to cast a wider net for grace. We need to remain as minimalistic as possible with our faith, and give God's grace the freedom to work, rather than assuming a role as guardians of "the Truth." God's Truth is not our possession, it possesses us. And if we believe that, we need to trust that God will take care of all who seek Him, even if we don't agree with their views.

This requires a fundamental shift in our thinking: Rather than being afraid to live/work/worship with those who fall outside our particular confession of faith, we should embrace the opportunity to honestly engage with other believers in any setting -- allowing that even if we are meeting with someone who ultimately is not a Christian, that isn't the point. The point is to trust that God will be revealing Truth as Christians interact with others in the Spirit's power.

That power, it seems to me, is not primarily manifested in writing up documents in order to determine how we will live and interact, it is IN the living and the interacting, in the struggle and the growth that comes from allowing ourselves to have a wide view of God's grace and watching as God draws people from all backgrounds, nations, and walks of life to Himself. Does this paradigm also contain certain dangers? Of course. But in my estimation, the dangers of relinquishing our attempts to control the Truth and living with a wider view of God's grace pale in comparison to the danger of reducing the Gospel to a system we can manage, because that is nothing more than idolatry - the creation of a god in our own image.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

opening another can of worms... :-)

First substantial post in several weeks... might as well make it controversial!

A recent report on NPR discussed the possible ramifications of the CA Supreme Court's ruling in favor of gay marriage. One growing trend appears to be an intensification of the legal struggles between gay rights advocates and religious organizations. My guess is that most gay people don’t want to force people to accept them by enacting legislation. However, just as there are religious advocates who desire to push their particular moral agenda on the nation, there are also those in the GLBT community who have their own legislative agenda. And, there are just some people who are "sue-happy."

The Federal Civil Rights Act guarantees all people the right to "full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin." (The key phrase is, of course, "any place of public accommodation") Whether everyone likes it or not, citizens of the United States have been given the freedom to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they are not harming someone else or don't directly infringe on someone else's freedom to live their lives as well.

What disturbs me are situations like the recent one in NM where a Christian photographer who refused to take marriage pictures for a gay couple was then sued, and was ordered to pay $6600 in legal fees for discrimination. Discrimination? Let’s be honest here - more or less, this lawsuit seems to be about hurt feelings. I cannot see how this, in any way, falls under the auspices of civil rights. Is it my right to never have my feelings hurt? To never have anyone refuse what I ask them to do? Does saying you disagree with someone’s behavior automatically count as discrimination?

Such a perspective suffers from terribly flawed logic: Can you imagine a world where everyone was obligated to perform any service asked of them, simply because to refuse would be "discrimination?" Would a gay photographer be content with having to take pictures of Fred Phelps' family holding their cruel "God hates fags" signs, because of "civil rights?" Or, as another person suggested, what about forcing a vegetarian to make a promotional video for a butcher shop, so as to avoid any intimation of discrimination? When everyone can claim discrimination for any reason, no one can claim discrimination for any reason.

The response, I'm sure, would be that any business which is open to the public cannot refuse services to anyone on grounds like race, sexual orientation, etc. because that is the law. (Even though sexual orientation is not explicitly addressed in the FCRA) But what I wonder is: Will forcing a photographer to take wedding pictures of a gay couple really bring about the kind of change that gay rights advocates hope for? Or is it not just a reflection of the kind of tactics that religious fundamentalists have used against gay people? Why emulate that approach?

Of course, this is a difficult ethical area to traverse, because - for example - without civil rights, Jim Crow-era restaurants could still continue to refuse service to minorities. And that would be bad - just as all bigotry is bad. But, if possible, I'd rather have the community regulate that racist behavior by putting that restaurant out of business, than have to rely on the government to make the bigots serve black people.

Bringing about a change in behavior from within the community is always preferable to having to rely on pressure from the outside to force a change in behavior. Unless it's a systemic problem, in which case the government may have to step in. And I think there have been times when that's been necessary, but I don't think that's ever the best solution. And even if there is systemic discrimination, that can only be resolved to a point, because all Americans are allowed their own freedoms, no matter how insulting, to a point. Whether we like it or not, there are still a lot of bigots out there. And they are free to be bigots.

It seems we are in the midst of a struggle between the freedom of religion and the rights of gays. In my opinion, the first thing that needs to happen is that people on both sides need to be reminded that one of these freedoms is not superior to the other in our constitution.

No matter how much believers may hate to admit it, our nation was not founded on the idea that religious freedom is superior to other kinds of personal freedom. On the other hand, despite the apparent mindset of a vast majority of our culture, my own individual freedom is not superior to the freedom of the other person. The problem, I think, is there are people on both sides who aren't willing to admit these realities. Until they do, the conflict will never be resolved properly in an ethical sense. It will continue to be resolved by legal means, and that will create further suspicion and hostility.

To impose any subjective political agenda - religious, gay, or otherwise - on the rest of the nation is contrary to the reasoning behind the founding of America. Freedom, as my friend Roy says, is a two-way street. If you expect a freedom for yourself, you have to allow it for the other person as well. That may not always be easy to accept, but it is the American way.