Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve...

Well, I just got back from visiting family for the holidays, and tonight is both New Year's Eve and my birthday! So... any substantial blog posts will have to wait a couple days. :-)

Monday, December 28, 2009

The challenge of Zizek's materialist ontology...

I've finally been getting to the Zizek/Milbank debate in "The Monstrosity of Christ" and I'm planning a few posts in response to the book, but let me begin by quoting Zizek; this is - I will claim - Zizek's challenge to theism, and deserves a healthy response. We will see if Milbank is able to provide that response... for now, Zizek:

"[W]hen people imagine all kinds of deeper meanings... what really frightens them is that they will lose the transcendent God guaranteeing the meaning of the universe, God as the hidden master pulling the strings - instead of this, we get a God [in Christianity] who abandons his transcendent position and throws himself into his own creation, fully engaging himself in it up to dying, so that we, humans, are left with no higher Power watching over us, just with the terrible burden of freedom and responsibility for the fate of... God himself. Are we not still too frightened today to assume all the consequences of the four words ['he was made Man']? Do those who call themselves 'Christians' not prefer to stay with the comfortable image of God sitting up there, benevolently watching over our lives, sending us his son as a token of his love, or, even more comfortably, just with some depersonalized Higher Force?"

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A bit of economic theory for this holiday season... :-)

"Pluralism is but a facade for the transvaluation of all practices, institutions, dispositions, and relationships into commodities that can be exchanged in the global market. A pluralist regime stipulates that choice per se is the highest good, and therefore it is committed to excluding any way of life that is 'postulated upon nonconsumerist conceptions of human fulfillment...'

[E]very thing and every body is packaged as a product to be consumed (including marriage, having children, and making friends), and the exchange value of these products is determined by their market share, that is, their ability to satisfy consumers... Substantive understandings of the human good such as that traditionally embodied in the life and language of the church are summarily dismissed as restrictive practices."

(Barry Harvey - "Can These Bones Live?")

Monday, December 21, 2009

Putting the "hyper-Calvinist" argument to rest...

Ok, so that probably will not happen, but here's my take on the whole "faith vs. works" issue that seems to be so often blown out of proportion in the Calvinist vs. Arminian debates:

My thesis is simply the following -- The decision made in faith to follow Christ cannot be considered a "work," precisely because it is not an action which requires an obligatory response from God; in other words, it does not require God to do, or give, or provide something to us. (Romans 4 spells this out pretty clearly, if you're needing a biblical reference point.) Rather, it is the response of humble surrender which results from the recognition that God has already done the work on our behalf, and has given us the gift of faith by the Spirit. Our response, and the acceptance of that gift, cannot be classified as any sort of work, because God is not obliged to give us grace as a result of our faith. God has already given grace and faith to us, and our surrender to that reality is not an action, but a reaction, such that it places no stipulation upon God.

As such, any resort to language of "works" with regard to the human decision of willing to surrender to Christ/God is a straw man; it is simply an argument that results from a misunderstanding of the definition of the word "work." Of course, this does all beg the question of whether God's gifts of grace and faith are given to all humanity -- I believe they are (Scriptural citations available upon request. ;-D). But the bigger question, from my perspective, is whether all humanity will eventually surrender to God's grace, or whether some will remain defiant forever. Unfortunately (or - actually - fortunately!), only God can answer that question. But I think my thesis here is viable and offers a genuine alternative to the rigid "double-predestinarian" view held by some believers. I'm going on record: Five-point Calvinism is incorrect.

Friday, December 18, 2009

More of my favorite lyrics...

This song is just beautiful... "Wait for Sleep" by Dream Theater:

Standing by the window
Eyes upon the moon
Hoping that the memory
Will leave her spirit soon

She shuts the doors and lights
And lays her body on the bed
Where images and words are running deep
She has too much pride to pull the sheets above her head
So quietly she lays and waits for sleep

She stares at the ceiling
And tries not to think
And pictures the chain
She's been trying to link again
But the feeling is gone

And water can't cover her memory
And ashes can't answer her pain
God give me the power to take breath from a breeze
And call life from a cold metal frame

In with the ashes
Or up with the smoke from the fire
With wings up in heaven
Or here, lying in bed
Palm of her hand to my head
Now and forever curled in my heart
And the heart of the world

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kathryn Tanner on the consistency of God's grace...

This is a challenging collection of thoughts from Tanner's book "Theories of Culture":

"God is one and God's intentions for us are marked by consistency and faithfulness, but such unity, consistency, and faithfulness are much odder than anything captured by claims for continuity among Christian practices in virtue of shared traditional materials or claims for continuity in the processes that transmit them.

Even should the human response to God be properly obedient, this God is one who works by the reversal of human expectations - a God who in Jesus dies rather than triumphs, and then, equally unexpectedly, is risen from the dead - a God who, without being untrue to covenant partnership with Israel, brings Gentiles into the people of God without requiring their observance of Jewish law. There is consistency here - the consistency of a God of free grace - but it is a consistency that, because it could not have been predicted in advance, appears to be such only in retrospect."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

thinking about growing older and still being single...

So, I'll be turning 38 in a couple weeks, and I'm still single. That's not something I ever expected, and it's not always easy to remain hopeful, especially when it seems like finding "that special someone" is about as likely as congress finding a solution to health care that makes everyone happy. :-)

But, I have grown a lot (I think!) and I am certainly grateful for all the blessings in and throughout my life. Still, the realization that in all likelihood I will be in my 40's before I'm married and starting a family (assuming that's what God has in mind) is a bit disappointing. So, with this as a backdrop, I now want to make a few observations about Christian relationships from my current vantage point:

I think it's pretty clear that as one gets older, it becomes more difficult to meet (in my case) available Christian women. That is just the expected outcome of a smaller pool of singles who share with each other the qualities/characteristics that make for a potentially successful relationship. There are many reasons why people are waiting longer to get married, but the basic point is that as people get older, they have fewer options. Or, perhaps different options. Options that you wouldn't have considered before suddenly seem viable. Either way, it requires a shift in thinking.

But, there are still a few characteristics foundational enough for me that I won't budge on them (which isn't to say I've perfected any of them!). I'm not sure if these are "Christian" qualities, or that they are the same for everyone. But they apply to me. For example, honest communication and being "real." That is just fundamental for me. Now, most of the women I've dated are this way, and I'm not trying to suggest otherwise. I just can't help but think that life as a whole would be a whole easier if we didn't all pretend so much. But not pretending has a social cost. It makes people uncomfortable, and has the potential to create conflict.

Never mind that often the conflict is a necessary development for growth, many people would rather avoid the pain or embarrassment, so they just avoid it. This is a problem for both men and women. Nothing shocking there. But it's truly unfortunate that Christian people often won't communicate honestly with each other, especially when it comes to relationships. Learn to know yourself and be honest with yourself. Then tell people what you think and how you feel!

[A caveat: DON'T do this if you're aware that it's obviously selfish! Unfortunately that is often the case with people searching for a meaningful relationship. It happens to the best of us. Don't pretend that you aren't aware of that. :-D]

Being honest means facing the reality of a situation from all angles. This has a lot of ramifications, but here's the one I want to mention: Not all Christian men, or women, think alike! Shocking! hehe. But seriously, don't base your assumptions about all men or women on just a few experiences. This can be difficult because it makes sense that having a bad experience will lead one to try and avoid similar experiences in the future. But all relationships are difficult, and running from problems - or trying to avoid the pain that could be beneficial in the long run - is behavior that we must learn to change, if we are to experience truly positive relationships.

This next statement is probably a bit more controversial, but I'll say it anyway: Women, it's OK for men to NOT be a stereotypical "real Christian man," because often those men aren't real either! Let me explain this a bit more. First, I fully agree that many men have shirked their responsibilities and are not living up to their callings as husbands and fathers. But I also know quite a few Christian men (myself included) who would like very much to be husbands/fathers.

Here's the thing about us "non-real" Christian men. We don't want to feel like we're being forced to get married out of guilt, or constantly scrutinized and told that we don't yet have what it takes to be a man. Many Christian men simply need encouragement, but often what we hear is something more like: "A man needs to be mature, have a good job, and the spiritual/emotional steadiness to care for his wife and family!" Well, duh. But not all of us are investment bankers, and most of us don't look like Johnny Depp or write brilliant love poetry every day of the week. That doesn't mean we aren't excellent men.

Additionally, many of us want to be with women who think for themselves and have their own dreams, goals, and visions. I don't want to be in a relationship where I have to pretend like I have everything under control, just so my girlfriend/wife thinks I'm a real man, and feels "safe enough" to have kids. I have nothing against safety, I tend to like it myself. :-) But if love is really a gift from God, that makes it the most dangerous, unsafe thing in the world, and I want to be in a relationship where both of us push each other to love in a dangerous way.

What does this mean? It does NOT mean being irresponsible or foolish. But it does mean developing a relationship where two people have the same desire to build a life together, out of a love that sees such immense value in the other person that it wants to follow Christ by living sacrificially for that person. When two people are living that way for each other, it is really scary, but - if God is True - it is the only way to live in true intimacy. I'd like to find a woman who feels the same way, and, yes, challenges me when I'm wrong. But not one who just wants a man to make her life safe and comfortable. I don't believe that the man bears all the responsibility for directing the relationship, or that the man is required to "lead" - spiritually or otherwise - in all situations.

Now, men: This does not get us off the hook! Too often we are too fearful, lazy, distracted, irresponsible, etc. So, as a man, I say to you (and myself) - Let's not allow ourselves to be less than what we can be! A first simple step in this process (yeah, it's best to make things as simple as possible for guys): Get to know women! Really, honestly, get to know them.

We men (although I''m sure women do this as well) are very good at playing the odds; we may think some girls are "cute" or "sweet" but we are pretty sure that if we hold out a bit longer, we'll find someone who is exactly what we've been hoping for. And, in the meantime, we are missing out on many great opportunities to get to know amazing women.

Maybe some of those will end up being people we marry, maybe they'll just be friends. But what I've grown to realize - and I wish I had realized sooner - is that whether we are married or single, if we really get to know women and treat them with dignity, respect, and love in Christ, then even if they aren't meant to be with us, we are providing a foundation to make their futures even better. That is the true value of Christ's love - even when it doesn't necessarily make us "feel good", it brings about transformation.

If we, as men, could learn this lesson, I have a suspicion that many of the issues women struggle with might start to slowly evaporate. After all, it's no secret that, historically, men have tended to treat women quite poorly. That can only change when we realize that women are worth caring about regardless of whether they will be with us or not.

Anyway, all of this leaves me where I began - approaching 40 and single. It's not what I expected or wanted at this point in my life, but it's where I am. And, whatever happens, I am learning to trust that God is good, and love is only worth sharing when it comes from a place that expects nothing for itself, but only the good of the other. That, thankfully, is a lesson that carries a joy which has the potential to sustain one in times of loneliness and frustration.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Next time you're confronted by... of the so-called "manly man" Christians who think Jesus is some sort of UFC-fighter-tough-guy savior, just respond with this quote from Kierkegaard:

"Only a weak and effeminate man demands immediate justification, demands immediate success in the outer world, just because he is weak, and therefore must have an outward proof that he is the strongest."

(from Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing)

haha. :-D

Sunday, December 6, 2009

on a totally different note...

Well, being unemployed has - no big surprise - given me more free time, and I've been trying to figure out how to make the best use of that time. I have been spending more time with friends (old and new) and I've also been trying to focus on reading/writing/preparing myself for further academic study (been working on PhD apps too...). But one other thing I've been doing is returning to music. I haven't worked on any songwriting/composing in a long time, and it's about time I picked that up again. Over the past week I've been fiddling with my synth, software samplers, etc, and I have been reminded of just how much I love that sort of thing. So, hopefully this will also mark a return to some semblance of creativity that I've neglected for some time. Maybe I'll eventually post some of these new concoctions online. We'll see!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jenson on consciousness (from a theological perspective)...

"Kant used the notion of a transcendental unity of consciousness in radically individualist fashion: the whole rest of the world, other persons included, provide my consciousness with raw data, which are pulled together from an inalienably private focus behind my metaphysical back. But, of course, there are no mere data to be handled in this fashion; the world unified in my consciousness is always already interpreted in the life of some community, first the life of the triune community within which I am created and then the life of the created communities I thereupon inhabit. I participate in the unifying of my consciousness, I do not simply do it.

I am conscious of things from a perspectival point - and so am conscious at all - because I exist in and by the web of some community or communities... created persons have each our perspectival focus in that we are simultaneously located within the triune history and community and within created human history and community."

Robert Jenson (On Thinking the Human)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Doubt, forgiveness, and the hidden-ness of God...

When it comes to forgiveness, perhaps the greatest challenge for some of us is not learning how to forgive others, or even ourselves, but learning how to "forgive" God. I'll explain what I mean by this in a minute.

For as long as I can remember, I have been taught, reminded, and challenged to trust in God's goodness and love. I have been told to rely upon God’s promises, and take comfort in God's unchanging character. Trusting in God, it is said, is the one thing that matters in life, because not only does it help us make a difference in this world, but it prepares us for the world beyond. The supreme example of God's love is Jesus Christ, and so our trust is finally to be placed in him.

But here we run into (or at least I do) a major obstacle, a problem that theists and atheists alike refer to as the "hidden-ness" of God. Put simply, it is not easy at all to determine the conditions that make possible genuine knowledge of - or trust in - God, since there is so much about God that remains hidden from us. Of course, most believers will say that they can, and have, "seen" God. But what does that mean? I could write a year's worth of blog posts on all the different understandings and theories of what seeing/hearing/experiencing God means. But the point I'll make for now is this:

Everyone has a slightly different understanding of what God's "presence" means, how God "acts" in our lives, and how we can "know" that God is real. This should not be a surprise, given the infinitely surpassing greatness of the one we call "God." But, it does create a significant quandary for anyone who wants to step beyond merely believing for its own sake and find out whether the object of their belief is trustworthy (something that God, by the way, asks us to do in Scripture). Referring to Jesus Christ does not solve this problem, given that the man Jesus is not anywhere to be found today, and we must rely on the Spirit of the risen Christ, which is just as hidden, and just as open to interpretation.

Now, let me be clear: Child-like faith is rightly seen as a valuable trait under certain conditions. But the dilemma is that we all must, at the same time, actually determine whether our faith is placed in a trustworthy source. Even a child does not "blindly" believe –- a child who throws himself or herself into the arms of their parent (jumping from the stairs, or into a swimming pool), or in a moment of fear or pain reaches out for help, does so because they somehow understand that the parent cares for them.

But given enough failed catches, or – even worse – ignorance/abuse, the child will slowly begin to realize that the one in whom they have placed their trust is not living up to their promises, and they will wonder why. Is it really any surprise, then, that many (if not all) people struggle with questions about God's trustworthiness? In fact, I would say that if we are honest, all believers are, to some degree, also doubters. It certainly isn't easy to figure out why God has apparently "dropped" us so many times.

There are many answers given to the questioner - most of which fall into the "just keep trusting anyway" category - but I personally feel more compelled by those believers who struggle honestly with their questions and aren't afraid to challenge God and ask why. Now, granted, we are not in a position to make God do what we want, or determine how God should behave. And, we cannot say that God will not bring good out of our suffering. God's ways are beyond our understanding; fair enough.

But the typical Christian answer -- "Well, God is good. We should simply trust in Him regardless of our circumstances. That's faith." -- merely begs the questions: What do "good" and "bad" mean if we can't successfully apply those terms to God? What does it mean to trust in a God who doesn't always operate according to the basic ideas we have of good and bad? Is there any reason to assume that such a God is worth trusting? There may very well be, but it seems that in order to find a reason we will first have to struggle with the very meaning of our faith in God. And that is extremely difficult for most of us, because it is disorienting and frightening.

The subsequent response that God's goodness is found in a relationship with Him that sustains us through our suffering and confusion certainly sounds appealing, but it ultimately sidesteps the issue: The problem is precisely with the idea of the relationship to begin with -- how can a person establish a genuine relationship with someone who appears to have let them down once too many times?

One response, of course, is to give up on the relationship. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that it is not the case, we don't really believe that a God who often seems distant and uncaring really exists. Or, perhaps he is the "Calvinist" God who sovereignly predestines some to damnation... and since that God seems so distant from us, it follows that we are probably those poor souls. And this frustration, pent up, has led many former believers to abandon their faith and proclaim what, deep down, they've felt all along – that if this is all we have to go on when it comes to God, it's time to stop playing and leave the game.

What do we do with such a troubling experience? Is there another option besides turning to agnosticism or outright atheism? How does someone find faith in the midst of such confusion, and is there a true faith to find to begin with? There is no easy answer, that much seems clear. But I would like to suggest another approach, using the analogy of relationship.

We all know that relationships are extremely difficult. There are many times when genuine friends/lovers/family members develop antagonistic patterns toward each other that threaten to tear the relationship apart. Sometimes they do. People hurt each other, and hurt people respond in kind. This is not a surprise to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. But we also know that the only thing capable of mending such an injured relationship is an attitude of forgiveness. Perhaps it is time that we consider the possibility of "forgiving" God.

What does this mean? Simply this: if a person has gone through immense pain caused by someone they care about, the measure of how much they care about that other person will be seen in how they deal with the pain. If they still desire intimacy with the other, they will - even if it takes a long time - try to begin the process of healing well, and slowly move to a place where they can genuinely hope for the other's good and for eventual reconciliation of some sort. Now, it may be that some wounds are beyond repair, but nearly everyone I know longs for the majority of their relationships to be made right, even if they are not the same as they were before. Why not extend the same hope to God?

Of course, there are many reasons - and I am not going to try and convince anyone who thinks they have a good reason - to be unforgiving toward God. Perhaps they do. But maybe, just maybe, we (I say 'we' because I count myself in this group) who feel as though God has somehow abandoned or betrayed us can begin the process of reaching out to God, not as some Sovereign Lord who demands our obedience, but as a beloved who - in our feeble eyes - appears to have wronged us, even multiple times. Instead of giving up on the relationship, we can consider the possibility that the relationship can be reconciled. Yes, it will not be the same, but it can be restored somehow. And, if there is any part of us that still longs for God, then let us see if we cannot learn to forgive God: Not that we hold some leverage in a relationship with God, but wait... perhaps we do.

If God really did create all things out of love, and called them good, then perhaps God actually cares about, and can be somehow influenced, by our response. And perhaps if we continue to hold our hand out to God, even half-heartedly, then we will someday find that God has taken hold of our hand again, and the healing of the relationship will really begin. But that can only happen if we are willing to forgive God for the pain, and wait, and seek. How long do we wait? (What if we have waited for years?) That all depends on how much you value the possibility of being in a relationship with God.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Inspiration and Incarnation by Enns

Having just - finally - briefly skimmed through Peter Enns' "controversial" (at least in ultra-conservative Christian circles) book, Inspiration and Incarnation, I have the following comments:

1. The book really is relatively easy to read and geared for the layperson. It would be a great resource for many churches, as it touches on many of the difficulties surrounding Scripture, and explains them in a very straightforward manner, clearly, and almost entirely without bias. That is no easy task. Enns notes that there are aspects of the Bible that are very "human", but simply asks, "Why should we expect it to be any different?" What's wrong with God's story being given to us with human traits? How else would we expect God to give humans his story? This does not mean Enns doesn't take Scripture seriously; far from it. In fact, he likely stands closer to the "conservative" end of the theological spectrum than I do, but I can agree with nearly everything he says.

2. I was actually surprised at how much of what Enns points out in the book is fairly basic seminary-level biblical/historical information. Much of the detail regarding similar ancient creation stories, comparisons with non-biblical accounts, potential contradictions, and proper NT use of OT passages, are issues that scholars have been debating for some time, and nearly everyone recognizes they are real issues.

Enns, for the most part, simply points out the issues, discusses why they could be a problem for Evangelicals (who take the Bible's "inerrancy" very seriously), and then explains why an "incarnational" view of Scripture serves to alleviate the problem. Yes, some will be disappointed that Enns does not provide a stronger defense of the "truth" of the Bible, but to my mind, I don't think his point is to defend a particular doctrine of inspiration. Rather, he is simply trying to show that accepting certain human characteristics, or even cultural developments, within the creation of the Bible, does not mean you have to stop believing it's a story that really happened. It's a rather uncontroversial claim, really.

3. Which brings me to my third point: I'm surprised at how much trouble Enns got into with WTS for writing this book. It's almost like they said, "My word! A creative way to look at Scripture! We can't have that!" And so they fired him. I mean, I understand that one could read the book and infer that inerrancy is not necessary, but it doesn't have to be read that way.

Incidentally, the whole argument over inerrancy just doesn't matter much to me: I gave up on that notion years ago. It just seems rather silly to me. That isn't to say God couldn't have done things absolutely, exactly the way the Bible says; I just don't see what one gains (other than a false sense of stability) by demanding that is the only way to read the Bible.

But, even if one does take inerrancy to be fundamental for genuine Christian faith, I fail to see how Enns' book really threatens such a view. Does it present a creative, somewhat provocative notion? For ultra-conservatives, it probably does. But for everyone else, the book will seem quite nonthreatening, and probably quite helpful. It offers a more balanced view of Scripture: one that clearly holds to the authority and truth of Scripture, while providing some breathing room for all those Christians who secretly wonder: Can I believe the Bible, even if some of the details, including the way the stories were written, seem strangely "human"?

Relax. The Bible is still God's word, even if people were involved in the process. After all, that's the way God's revelation works: It is revealed to people, who then have to figure out what to do with it. Yes, that can make it messier, but what else would we expect? Golden tablets from heaven? Yeah, um... that's something else.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ellul on what it means to live...

"That men should be alive, instead of being obsessed with action - it is at this point that means can be put in their right place. But to do this evidently means a complete break with all the tendencies of contemporary thought. What, however, does it really mean 'to be alive?' ...above all it is a fact of spiritual life. To be alive means the total situation of man as he is confronted by God [or whatever the ultimately reality may be]; this is precisely what our world wants to forget... In a civilization which has lost the meaning of life, the most useful thing a Christian can do is live - and life, understood from the point of view of faith, has an extraordinary explosive force. We are not aware of it, because we only believe in 'efficiency,' and life is not efficient."

(Jacques Ellul - The Presence of the Kingdom)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A quote from Carl Raschke... the nail has been hit on the head...

This quote is from an online review (by Carl Raschke) of the new book by Merold Westphal (Whose Community? Which Interpretation?), and though it's only peripheral to the main point of the book, it's just too awesome not to share! :-)

"When it comes to reading texts, particularly Biblical texts (which is the business of hermeneutics), we tend to treat our presuppositions like we often do our spouses. We are prone to take them for granted, and frequently ignore them entirely, except when our sense of honor or identity is threatened, at which point we get defensive, even belligerent."

Monday, November 16, 2009

More of my favorite lyrics... :-)

Haven't done this in a while! This is a song by The Mountain Goats, from the album "Tallahassee." Amazing songwriter and storyteller, that John Darnielle... I don't know why, but I always picture a stowaway illegal immigrant signing this song...

First Few Desperate Hours

Bad luck comes in from Tampa
Bad luck comes in from Tampa
On the back of a truck
Doing ninety up the interstate
We have bad dreams the night he rolls in
We have bad dreams the night he rolls in
And we try to keep our sprits high
But they flag and they wane
When the truck pulls up out front
In the light spring rain
And they sag like withering flowers
Let the good times roll on
Through these first few desperate hours

The driver drops his cargo at the curb
The driver drops his cargo at the curb
And the sun peeks in
Like a killer through the curtain
And when cloven hoof prints turn up in the garden
Yeah when cloven hoof prints turn up in the garden
We keep up the good fight
We keep our spirits light
But they draw like flies
And there's a stomach-churning shift
In the way the land lies
And they lean like towers
On a hillside struggling to stand
Through these first few desperate hours

Saturday, November 14, 2009

more from Dorothy Soelle...

"It is clear that Christianity makes an overwhelming affirmation of suffering, far stronger than many other world views that do not have as their center the symbol of the cross. But this affirmation is only part of the great love for life as a whole that Christians express with the word 'believe.' To be able to believe means to say yes to this life, to this finitude, to work on it and hold it open for the promised future."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

thinking theologically about universals and particulars...

As is well known in philosophy [n.b. - this is a very brief summary!], Plato referenced two distinct realities, the world of things (where we live), and the world of the forms (the "true" or "pure" reality). For him, the particular "thing" in our reality is just a copy, or shadow, of the universal form, which is THE real thing. Aristotle came along and said: No, the universal is in the particular; in other words, the true reality of the thing is found somehow within the form of the thing itself. This relationship between the "universal" and the "particular," or some version thereof, has been debated ever since: Is the particular a reflection of, and thus less real, the universal, or, is the universal in the particular, tacitly making the universal dependent upon the particular?

Christianity, it seems to me, has posited a reality that is a combination of, and yet transcends, both of these options: The universal (God) is both in a particular (Jesus) and beyond all particulars. All created reality is not only a shadow of reality as it should/will be, but in some sense all particulars are contained in the universal (i.e. sustained by God’s Spirit). So, we have a dialectical relationship between the particular and the universal, one that creates an aporia for human thought.

Hegel’s attempts, as I understand him, to parse out this aporia by way of a philosophical system, finally led to his subsuming all particulars into an inevitable universal that fulfills all particularities. Kierkegaard, of course, clearly preferred the particular individual over the universal, for a variety of reasons, yet he also recognized the ultimate paradox of Christ as both universal and particular (see SK's Training in Christianity for instance). Postmoderns (or so it is often claimed) tend to think - radicalizing Kant - that since the universal is unknowable, all we have is the particular, which means that all knowledge and experience of reality is tentative and potentially meaningless.

But Christianity, again, seems to indicate NOT that we have no universal, but that the universal cannot be known directly; therefore, we need to focus on the particular, and perhaps, in examining the particular, we will grasp a small piece of the universal. At the same time, it claims that these particulars actually reflect a universal reality that is greater than, or "more real," than our own.

Now, what should our response be, as believers in the Christian reality? Some suggest that we simply have no choice but to trust God (the universal) as revealed, and make no claim to have any additional resources. Others argue that if we look at multiple particulars (I will tentatively label this approach "natural theology"), perhaps the overall effect will be that we establish some glimpse of the universal that can be employed in our attempts to function within this reality.

This leads to a host of questions, of course – How many particulars are needed to establish a pattern for the universal? Are some particulars more reliable than others? Who decides? What do we do when communities disagree over the particulars, or patterns of particulars? Is this even appropriate for Christianity, given that we already have THE supposed particular truth, namely, the revelation of Jesus Christ attested to in Scripture? Should we simply rely on that particular for guidance? What happens when that particular breaks down vis-a-vis our reality? Do we then retreat into "non-realism" or do we move into another mode of response? All these questions, and more, are related to theological reflection on the concepts of the universal and the particular...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Soelle on suffering...

Reading Dorothy Soelle's book, Suffering, has been very therapeutic - as well as theologically helpful - for me this week. Here are a couple of my favorite passages so far:

"Whoever deals with his personal suffering only in the way our society has taught him - through illusion, minimization, suppression, apathy - will deal with societal suffering in the same way. The modern question about suffering, focusing on society... can only be addressed meaningfully in a context in which the traditional question... focusing on the individual, is not suppressed."

"Apathy is a form of the inability to suffer. It is understood as a social condition in which people are so dominated by the goal of avoiding suffering that it becomes a goal to avoid human relationships and contacts altogether... This doesn't mean that apathetic people... don't suffer - let alone that they are happy. What they lack is an awareness of their own suffering and a sensitivity to the suffering of others. They experience suffering, but they "put up with it," it doesn't move them. They have no language or gestures with which to battle suffering. Nothing is changed; they learn nothing from it."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

God, suffering, and trust...

I'm not sure I like that title for this post, but, oh well...

I feel like (and, of course, starting with those words opens me up to a host of possible issues that I won't resolve in this short post!) a subtle, but perhaps life-altering, shift has been taking place within me over the last several days. A combination of my own thoughts and reactions to circumstances is leading me away from God in certain ways, and drawing me closer in others. I am not certain of the outcome (or of much else, for that matter! :-D), but I think I can state the following with assurance:

1. I no longer believe in the God that I have been holding onto in my heart for many years. This does NOT mean I don't believe in God, or Jesus Christ, but it does mean that something has changed. I think, for some time now, I've been secretly (to all but God!) bitter at God for not responding to me - and to what I perceive as injustice in the world - in a matter that seems sufficient to me. This has recently been boiling over, as I'll explain. I have held onto a view of God that, although emphasizing God's immeasurable love, has led me to think that God is obligated to operate according to certain parameters.

I won't suggest this is true of all Evangelicals, but there is often, I think, an underlying belief that God's goodness is reflected in, to put it bluntly, things going "my way." Even among those who speak with vigor concerning the sovereignty of God, most of my Evangelical experience has been underlined with a sort of "here's how to properly define God's blessing/nearness" mentality.

2. What do I mean? Well, you probably know the dilemma: When everything is going great, when life is wonderful, it's all about "God's favor" or "God blessing us." And then, when things go bad, the response is typically, "Who can understand the mystery of God?" or "God is punishing us for some reason." This has always seemed a bit suspicious to me. First, if it's simply a matter of God blessing us in some circumstances, and punishing us in others, then it naturally follows that we will try to figure out what to do so that we're "obeying" God properly and reaping the blessings while avoiding the punishment. It's completely natural to want to do that.

Second, the problem is, at least for me, that this develops into a cognitive dissonance: If I'm trying to do all the right things, and there is MORE suffering, or when suffering comes to people who don't seem to deserve it at all, the system of works (which is essentially what I'm describing) starts to crack. There are simply too many unexplainable things, from human imperfections as insignificant as warts, to horrific natural disasters, that thwart any attempt to develop a system of obedience that keeps us safe as Christians, or just as people in general. Lately, my anger at God for not "making things right" has led me to lash out him in quite vehement language. It's something I can't ignore any longer.

The issue is simply this: If God is a mystery, then there is NOT a system of law to which we can appeal as providing us with shelter, as long as we obey. This is the story of Job, but I think - at least in my experience - the Western (American?) Evangelical response to Job has been closer to Job's three friends, who try to explain it all, than an honest recognition that God may not do what we want at all.

3. So, we are left with that "Who can understand why God allows X to happen?" mentality, or, as is often the temptation, we can give up on God. We can say - as I have a few times recently - "God, I've been waiting long enough, and you haven't shown up in a way that makes any sense, so... forget it. I'm done."

What I've realized is that, while neither of these is sufficient, if I am going to be honest as a believer, I have to say that I know far less about what God is doing, in both good and evil situations, than I previously thought. I have to admit that there is a greater distance between God and myself than I recognized.

I am sure that some people will, at this point, question my faith, and say things like, "If you're really following Christ, you just sense his presence," or "Don't you feel the spirit of God with you when..." Honestly, I don't have a good answer to those questions. But what I do know is that, as far as I can tell, most people who say things like that really don't have anything to back up their statements. They may or may not be experiencing God's presence, but I have no way to ascertain that. And I'm not going to rely on anyone else's explanation of how God has responded to them.

I have to simply trust, and wait, and see what happens. But I am no longer going to make any claims about how God HAS to operate, in spite of what the Bible, or anyone else, says about it.

Clearly, there is much more to how God does things than what is written in the Bible. It's not a simple "if... then..." correlation. Either that, or the hyper-Calvinists are right: there are a very limited number of people who are chosen by God, and the rest of us are just spinning our wheels, even if we want to know God. If that's the case, well, not much I can do about it. But, if (as I believe) God does want to be in relationship and transform everyone and everything, then that means I have to give up my notion that I can have any ability to predict or dictate what that looks like. And that's not very appealing to me. I want stability and predictability.

So, what is the point of this rambling post? Let's see if I can sum it up in a couple sentences: I am a very self-centered person who is slowly being (hopefully) transformed by Jesus Christ/God into someone who lets God be God and doesn't try to dictate what God's activity has to look like. But this is a very difficult process, because it means letting go of a lot of the "Evangelical" baggage and truisms that are imbedded in my soul/conscience. I'm not sure what to think about God anymore, but I have to hope that Jesus Christ will be all that I need, because otherwise, I'm screwed.

And that's that. (or is it?) :-)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Derrida as theologian...

"In the Epistle to the Philippians 2:12, the disciples are asked to work towards their salvation in fear and trembling. They will have to work for their salvation knowing all along that it is God who decides: the Other has no reason to give to us and nothing to settle in our favor, no reason to share his reasons with us. We fear and tremble because we are already in the hands of God, although free to work, but in the hands and under the gaze of God, whom we don't see and whose will we cannot know, no more than the decisions he will hand down, nor his reasons for wanting this or that, our life or death, our salvation or perdition. We fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible, that is, free to decide, to work, to assume our life and our death."

(Jacques Derrida, "The Gift of Death," p. 56)

Sounds like Derrida might have been a Reformed theologian... :-) And, aside from a disagreement with him over the impossibility of knowing God's will, I think Derrida's pretty well hit the nail on the head.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cavanaugh on Aquinas on property ownership...

"The universal destination of all material goods is in God. As Aquinas says, we should regard property as a gift from God, a gift that is only valid if we use it for the benefit of others. Thus Aquinas sanctions private ownership only insofar as it is put to its proper end, which is the good of all: 'Man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.'

Absent such a view of the true end of property, freedom means being able to do whatever one wants with one's property, and property can thus become nothing more than a means of power over others."

(William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, p. 29)

I would suggest that Cavanaugh's comments should be extended not only to material goods, but all materials that we "possess" as humans, and that includes our most obvious possessions: our very selves - body and mind. We are not our own - this means that our "ownership" of ourselves is in question if we are not turning ourselves toward our true end, namely, the benefit of others. Jesus called this simply "loving your neighbor." Without such a turning, our bodies and minds can be, to quote Cavanaugh again, "nothing more than a means of power over others."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On C.S. Lewis, natural theology, and the "Moral Law" argument...

In the systematic theology 1 class I'm TA'ing, the professor recently made the following observation:

C.S. Lewis posits, in Mere Christianity, that there is a "Moral Law" which all people recognize within themselves, and that this recognition serves as a theistic apologetic. But, to paraphrase Prof. Scalise, "Go to Pioneer Square in Seattle and ask people you meet if they believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong. I think you'll quickly discover that Lewis' argument doesn't work very well with most people."

Now, several students in the class objected to this, responding that Lewis wasn't attempting to prove that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong agreed upon by everyone, but rather that every person has a standard by which they determine morality, and, since each of us has such a "longing" for fairness, justice, etc., Lewis' argument still carries some weight as an apologetic. However, they generally agreed that this longing should not serve as a primary foundation for Christian belief.

This is all correct, as far as it goes. The problem is that we haven't gone far enough with our examination of Lewis' argument. What is Lewis actually hoping to do with the Moral Law hypothesis? It seems fairly clear that he seeks to develop a natural theology of some sort, in the hope that Christianity will be seen as "reasonable" and thereby become more appealing to "rational people." Lewis states:

"The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is... not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behavior we call bad or unfair is not necessarily the same as the behavior we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing – a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves." (Mere Christianity, p. 30)

Now, Lewis may be right, but he may also be wrong. The Moral Law could be a neurological development that is evolutionarily beneficial for human survival. But, in fact, he could be right about the reality of the Moral Law as independent from humans, and still be wrong! The dilemma is this: Just because Lewis' assertion that everyone has been given a real standard of "fairness" might be true, doesn't mean that it is given to us by God, let alone the Christian God.

In fact, Lewis admits as much. But he continues to pursue his line of reasoning, and that complicates things further. Because, if Lewis relies upon the absolute of the Moral Law as a ground to argue for the reasonableness of faith in Christ, then if that prior foundation is knocked down, the argument falls apart. An atheist might also hold to moral absolutism, that is, agree there are absolute principles of right and wrong. But they would argue that those principles are built into the structures of the natural world. Just as, for example, gravity dictates that objects will be drawn to each other according to a set of principles, human beings are drawn to a particular moral structure based upon a set of principles that dictate what behavior will best benefit human development.

My point is not to argue which of these views of moral absolutism is most reasonable. In fact, I would reject that whole approach, since it is not helpful in ascertaining anything about the Christian God. Instead, I begin with the assumption that, if anything like the Christian God exists, that God surpasses and yet sustains all laws or sets of principles. But God is not a member of a set, or any being/entity that is somehow determinable by a set of principles we posit. In this sense, it is theologically faulty to attempt to derive any knowledge of the Christian God from a prior set of rational or empirical principles.

Now, one might say that, given the possibility of a supernatural explanation for morality (or anything), such explanations can be helpful to bolster the claims of believers, since they offer support for the "general" claims of some sort of God, which might make it easier to subsequently believe in the Christian God. But, the flaw in placing hope in any such explanation is that when/if those explanations are undermined, our faith becomes undermined, because our "specific" claims to Christianity are no longer supported by the general claims of theism.

This danger should always be kept in mind, and it is right to caution Christians against placing their hope in any rational or empirical attempt to provide an explanation for God. These approaches are not entirely useless, but they are not sufficient as a ground for belief. That can only come when one, in the face of the evidence, and in spite of the counter-evidence, commits oneself to faith in Christ and the God of Christianity, not as a subsequent move based upon prior foundational claims, but as THE foundational claim - a claim that is neither rationally or empirically grounded, but grounded in the hope of Christ as the truth that makes sense of all other truths.

Yes, we can claim to have knowledge of an absolute Moral Law, but only in light of the prior claim that our reality is centered by Jesus Christ, who is God. That is our only source of absolute truth. All other truth is objectively valuable, but ultimately uncertain, especially when it comes to questions of faith.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Schweiker on the religious background of waterboarding...

I think this is fascinating, and disturbing (from the essay "Torture and Religious Practice" by William Schweiker, a religion professor at the University of Chicago):

"Why the use of water? Consider a tiny fragment of a complex history. In the case of the Anabaptists, the answer to the question about water is simple and clear. Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists, or "re-baptizers," since these people rejected infant baptism in favor of adult baptism...

Water as a form of torture is an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it can deliver the heretic from his or her sins. It was believed — at least since St. Augustine — that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death... Interestingly, beliefs about divine mercy and the ultimate good of salvation were the fuel driving polices that justified the use of torture.

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and, symbolically we can say, the threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed, like waterboarding, forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the sense of drowning. Because of the broad symbolic meaning of 'water' in the Christian and Jewish traditions (e.g., creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians, Christ's walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life, as in St. Paul's theology of baptism in Romans 6), the practice takes on profound religious meanings.

Torture has many forms and meanings, of course, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformations drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism.

This poses questions. Is it the purpose of the United States nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus give waterboarding on the trappings of a religious rite? Is waterboarding a kind of forced conversion hidden within a political action and thereby all the more powerful as a tool in the hands of the state to demonize its enemy? Does this signal a breakthrough of the demonic within political and military action since a religious rite is being subverted for immoral ends? These questions are so buried in public discourse that their full import is hardly recognized, even by devout Christians."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

TA'ing Systematics 1 and "the critique of revelation"...

This quarter, I am TA'ing Systematic Theology 1 at Fuller Northwest. Tonight I will be presenting part of the lecture on the doctrine of revelation. I am examining the critiques of revelation, and here is a bit of what I will be discussing:

Instead of God's grace being the central and most important question for theology, one critique of the doctrine of revelation is that revelation per se becomes the most important question. So, instead of asking "What does it mean to be saved, or experience God's grace?" theologians become focused upon the question, "How can I say that I know God?"

Now, it may seem that these are just two ways of saying the same thing, but they differ in a very important way: the latter question ("How can I say that I know God?") is concerned primarily with establishing knowledge of a relationship with God, while the former ("What does it mean to experience God's grace?") is primarily concerned with the relationship itself. It would be similar to the difference between asking, "How do I know that he or she loves me?" and "What does it mean to be in love?" If you spend all your time asking whether or not someone loves you, you're most likely missing out on the experience of actually being in love. The real question is "What does it mean to be in love?" and then stepping into that, even if you aren't completely certain about it.

And, I think this brings up another really important point, which is: Love, grace, everything that God reveals to us is epistemologically uncertain. But that's ok – as finite human beings, we aren't able to have it any other way. In fact, I'm not sure we would want it any other way! How could we desire love if there wasn't the possibility of life without love? Why would we care to know God if there wasn't some recognition of the possibility of life without God?

We do not believe in the truth of God's revelation because we are certain of it, we believe God's revelation is true, and that is the faith that sustains us in our uncertainty. And, here's a fun question to think about: If there was no uncertainty, could there be genuine faith?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Gerhard Ebeling on God and humanity...

"To separate God and man [i.e. humanity] misunderstands both. God and man are only known in relation to one another... True knowledge of God is not of God in himself. For a neutral, objective knowledge of God, which sets him at a distance, is a contradiction in itself. True knowledge of God is of God who is for us and with us. And, similarly, true knowledge of man is not of man in himself, in abstract isolation. In the last analysis man is abstract & isolated from the reality which concerns him, when he is not seen in his relation to God."

(from "The Nature of Faith")

[Note: Obviously Ebeling's language is masculine, but this applies to all people, not just males!]

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scripture, Reason, Tradition... and Jesus

I recently finished reading Walter Russell Mead's "God and Gold", a fascinating historical analysis of the development of British and American worldwide power from, essentially, 1600 to the present. Unsurprisingly, Mead covers a lot of ground in the book, from economics to politics to religion to culture, and an in-depth review would, I have no doubt, be far beyond my meager capacities! :-) But there is one particular assessment given by Mead that really caught my attention. Essentially, it is as follows (and I'll try to be brief! haha!):

Mead suggests that the British, and Americans afterward, developed a new attitude toward religion that was, in many ways, similar to their attitudes toward economics, politics, etc. In a word, religion in the Anglo-American world became "dynamic." This dynamic view, in Mead's words, was a combination of "Scripture, tradition, and reason -- each had its place and each had its devotees. But all of them went wrong if you pressed them too far." (p. 223)

In other words, religion in the Anglo-American world relied upon something similar to the balance of powers found in the American political system. Where any of the three elements -- Scripture, tradition, reason -- became too powerful or too out of balance, religion would become something that threatened the stability of the perceived order. So, religion's dynamic nature means that it is always open to change, because as we learn more and gain new experiences, the balance must be re-aligned to prevent any one of the three elements from gaining the upper hand and causing trouble.

Now, actually, there were many good reasons for Anglo-American support of this development. To list briefly, there were the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the subsequent growing realization that no one branch of Christianity held claim to the faith, since they often contradicted each other. Additionally, the enlightenment led to increased skepticism regarding the truth of religious claims in general. On top of all this, there was the recognition that religion could be and had been used by political and religious leaders for their own advantage. Both kings and popes were guilty of manipulating religion for their purposes.

Now, with regard to politics, culture, and economics, the British (like the Dutch before them, who actually got the ball rolling for many of these ideas!) learned that practical compromise and down-to-earth common sense would often lead to a diffusion of the tension created by competing interests (even if the radicals on both sides still remained). It seemed only natural to apply this approach to religion as well. Adam Smith, whose "The Wealth of Nations" solidified his status as the godfather of capitalism, also argued, says Mead, that "The common people need the support of a strong religious community." (p. 228)

Why? Because in the midst of the whirlwind of growth that is capitalism, a person needs a place where his traditional values and morals can been upheld. This provides a balance against the overwhelming activity found in the rapidly growing cities to which workers find themselves increasingly drawn. In other words, the religious community is a place of refuge, a place where "the social discipline of the home community" (p. 229) can be extended.

So, religion in Anglo-American society was not primarily seen (at least by Smith) as a way to come into relationship with the true and living God, it is seen as a tool that provides "psychological strength and social support that eventually allowed tens of millions of bewildered, hopeful, frightened peasants to find a place in the teeming cities and crowded industries of the new capitalist world." (p. 229)

But, in order to prevent a radical religious uprising, or a theocratic dictatorship, from taking hold, Smith suggested that the government should actually focus on providing both public education and pluralistic religious freedom, both of which would serve as protections against one particular religion gaining too much power. As Mead points out, an "open society" -- a society where many different views and ideas are allowed to flourish -- actually protects against any one of those views becoming monolithic.

And, intriguingly, Mead also suggests that such an open society actually increases the speed with which that society accepts new ideas. So, the more pluralistic religious "balance" is available to a society, the more willing they are to let another voice come to the table. He states, "without constant disputes, constant controversy, and constant competition between rival ideas about how society should look and what it should do, the pace of innovation and change is likely to slow as forces of conservative inertia grow smug and unchallenged." (p. 232)

Now, there are clearly valuable aspects of this worldview: social and individual improvements, including religious freedoms, have taken place more quickly and extensively in Anglo-American society than nearly anywhere else on earth. That, as Mead skillfully illustrates, cannot be disputed. Of course, there are also problematic consequences of such a worldview, and Mead discusses those as well.

However, there is a fundamental question left unanswered in Mead's assessment of religion in the development of Anglo-American society (after all, he is a historian, not a theologian), and it is a very simple and obvious question: Where does this leave Jesus Christ? It appears that, somewhere along the way (perhaps much earlier in history), Jesus was replaced as the central focus, and replaced with what Mead calls "the ideal of progress." (p. 238)

The British and American worldview has essentially been a transcendent search for a better way of life, and the democratic, capitalistic, pluralistic model they developed has done exactly that: it has given the people better lives. Not everyone, of course, but generally this is the case. Our standard of living is not only one of the highest in world history, but if it is surpassed, it is only because our worldview is being emulated by other nations all over the globe.

But, again, where does this leave Christ? For, it is foundational to Christianity that nothing -- not a political system, not an economic model, not a desire for progress, not the hope of better lives or a better world (as good as those may be) -- NOTHING is to replace Christ as our primary source of hope or meaning. All other worldviews and systems of thought must be developed in reference to Christ, who (as Bonhoeffer reminds us) must be at the center of all we do as Christians.

Now, I realize that this may sound exactly like what the Anglo-American model is guarding against -- a sort of radical belief system that is out of balance with the structure needed to protect our society from theocracy or chaos. And, of course, it is a very complicated matter to extract true faith from all of its cultural, political, and economic entanglements. But the problem is precisely that, if we are truly to be Christians, we CANNOT place Christ underneath any other worldview, even if it is the most beneficial worldview we know.

So how do we negotiate this dilemma? Well, I am not going to attempt to answer that in one post (or even a series)! But I welcome your comments and feedback. Perhaps, together, we can use the wisdom found in the Anglo-American approach to help us see new ways in which the proper balance can be restored: with Christ as our fulcrum, and all other systems of thought finding their grounding in Christ. What do you think? Is a proper balance even possible? Is radicalism our only option? Will Christianity always remain subject to Anglo-American "dynamic" religious thought?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Love precedes existence?

Just read the following in a review essay by Kevin Hart in the newest Journal of the AAR:

"The cry 'Here I am!' is more fundamental than the Cartesian judgment 'I think therefore I am.' No matter how certain I may be that I exist, I cannot protect myself by such certainty from the needling question 'What's the use?' I need assurance that I can be loved."

This is really appealing to me as a way of viewing reality -- love is prior to existence. But what is the right way to approach such a notion? The Christian philosopher Jean-Luc Marion argues that "God is love" is more foundational to belief than saying that "God exists." How are we to understand such an idea? Is there an epistemological basis for preferring love to existence? And what does that mean for our definition of love? These are some difficult, but interesting, questions that I think are worth pondering, at least for believers in Christ.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Subjective Meaning of Christianity...

"As St Augustine said, there are certain things we can learn only if we love what we are seeking to learn about. The real meaning of saying 'God is love' is forged and acquired in subjective life; its real meaning is what it means in my life. Any objective facts of the matter about 'Christianity' touch only the surface of Christianity. Christianity is not a body of propositions, but a way one's 'existence', one's personal life, must be transformed."

John Caputo (in How to Read Kierkegaard)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

a new chapter...

Well, I have been a bit busy over the last week or so, and haven't found time to blog, and now that I have... well, I lost my job yesterday. So, the bad news is that I have to look for work and deal with financial instability. The good news is, I will have more time to blog! :-) Plus, it will give me a chance to see if I can live out some of the things I've been talking about on this blog -- namely, learning to trust God while living in the midst of having less. Who knows what will happen next? Only God... and that, I am learning, is enough.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How much money should a Christian have/earn?

Several weeks ago, I made the following statement (not on this blog): "I don't think anyone should make more than a million dollars a year, unless they give most of it away." This led to an animated discussion, particularly because some friends misconstrued what I was saying, and for that I have only my poor communication skills to blame! But, I thought I'd revise and re-post my thoughts here, and hopefully get some additional feedback on what I take to be a very important issue for those of us who claim to follow Christ.

Now, I still stand by my statement -- BUT it does require a couple of caveats:

First, I fully realize that any statements I make on this matter will apply only to Christians, since that is the context of my/our morality. Any attempt to coerce or shame non-Christians into a Christian way of being, economically or otherwise, is not only foolish, but is contrary to the message of the Gospel itself. This was not clear in my original statement.

Second, with regard to the accusation of "judging:" Jesus never says Christians are not supposed to judge. Read the passages carefully -- what he says is, basically, "be careful how you judge, because the measure you use to judge others will be used to judge you." That is different from a blanket "do not judge" statement. We all make judgments about things and people all the time. We would not be able to function otherwise. The question is: Are our judgments fair and well-grounded? I want to explain why I think my judgment (as stated above) is both.

To make my case, I will offer three main points.

Point one: Christians, as followers of Jesus, are expected to do what Jesus did, and live as Jesus lived. In fact, as Christians, we ARE the life of Jesus in the present, made real by the Spirit.

It's that simple. The Gospels and Epistles make this plain over and over, so I'm hoping there will be no argument on this point, because it should be obvious to anyone who takes the Bible as a source of authority. Now, we may disagree on what it means to "live like Jesus," and that's where I want to take this conversation.

Following Christ means living a sacrificial and generous lifestyle of love. This, of course, can be parsed until it dies "the death of a thousand qualifications," but if we simply take Jesus' words and apply them generally – which is a great place to start! – we can say, at the very least, that Jesus is asking us to constantly strive to give ourselves - and our possessions (especially since they, and we, aren't really "ours" at all!) - away in acts of service to others, as a sign of our love for God.

Now, let me be clear: This is not legalism or some quantifiable approach. The amount, or exact methodology, isn't the point. The number ($1,000,000) isn't what matters. It could just as easily be $40,000 or $20,000. Each person must examine their motives and give out of a generosity that comes from following Christ's sacrificial call. We all know the story of the widow who gives two small coins. Jesus praises her – why? Because she gave out of a sacrificial, generous heart... even though she didn't have much.

The point is developing a lifestyle of generous, sacrificial love. But what does that mean? According to Jesus – and this is repeated throughout the NT - a life of sacrificial love consists precisely in one's willingness to continually give away what one has, out of gratitude to God for the great mercy and love shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In other words, it's not enough to be thankful for the good things God has given us. True thanksgiving means giving as much as possible, precisely because we know that all of it belongs to God anyway.

But, some might say, it's not practical to live this way! After all, if we gave away everything, we would have nothing! There are two responses to this straw man argument. First, in the Christian community, the point is that all members are to care for each other, thereby eliminating the chance that any one member will end up with nothing. This isn't socialism; it's simply providing for one's brothers and sisters.

Second, and more importantly, when did Jesus' call to discipleship become a matter of practicality? If there's one thing Jesus didn't have as a priority, it was being "practical." Yes, there were times when he did practical things; he wasn't stupid. But going to a city where he knew he would be tortured and crucified? That was fundamentally IMpractical. But it was also his purpose as God incarnate. And we are called to a similar purpose, one of sacrificial giving, because we believe that losing everything is worth what we get in return: resurrection life in Christ.

Now, I'll be the first to admit, I don't follow Jesus very well, in this area or any other. Which brings me to...

Point two: Human beings are, because of our finite and sinful status, drastically prone to mess things up. We are finite, so we simply can't know how to do things properly a lot of the time due to our limitations. But moreover, we are sinful, which means that we don't want to do the right thing a lot of the time. Again, I think this is pretty uncontroversial for anyone who claims Christianity. But, I suspect that, for many of us, our conception of sin has become rather myopic. We easily see some sins, and not others. We forget that, inasmuch as we are not following Christ, we are sinning. Sin is not just evidenced by our actions, it is evidenced by our inaction as well. And, let's be honest, it is very easy for us, in our comfortable western culture, to be inactive.

So, Jesus demands a radical commitment (point 1) and we don't do that very well (point 2). Therefore, onto point three:

Because human beings are prone to wander rather than follow, God provides us with boundaries and guidelines. Again, these are debatable, but let's stick with the basics. Read Matthew 5:40-48 and 6:19-21 (and the parallel passages in Luke 6) and Mark 8:34-35. Doesn't it seem like Jesus is calling us to lives that are filled with generosity and a willingness to sacrificially give ourselves away? But how are we to do this?

There are some who say that Jesus was giving us an impossible standard that we can never live up to, in order to show us our desperate need for his mercy. Certainly that is part of the story. But it misses the additional fact that Jesus repeatedly points out such a life IS possible with God! And Christ is God with us... so it seems clear that, as impossible as it may sound, Jesus did not expect his disciples to resign themselves to their imperfect lives, and give up on this way of living! Christians live differently, because of their hope!

To return to the gist of point three: biblical boundaries and guidelines are useful tools to help us as we learn to live like Jesus, by and in the Spirit. We might say that this is where practicality can come into play. Now, what might be a healthy benchmark for Christians as we seek to live generous, sacrificial lives? Why not start by placing a limit on what we will earn for ourselves? I am guessing that very few people, including Christians, make $1,000,000 a year. So, why not use that as our benchmark? Seems pretty lenient, actually!

Let me be clear: This does NOT mean that a Christian can't make a million dollars, it simply means that a Christian should do everything they can to give the majority of that million dollars to those in need, and keep as little for themselves as possible. Again, there is no predetermined formula for what that quantity will be, but I suspect (at least I know this is true for me) most people respond better when they have some sort of guideline that helps them in their attempts to live faithfully. Maybe start by trying to live on 5 per cent less this year than last year, and give the rest away.

What is fascinating to me is how quickly people get upset with these sorts of "concrete" statements. The rebuttal (which is often loud and extended!) usually centers around something like: "You don't know what so-and-so does with their money, and you can't judge someone else's motives, so don't tell them how much money they should make."

Fair enough - I don't know their income. But, I wonder, what is really behind such a response? The implicit assumption is that one's monetary income is "off limits," so to speak. We don't need to know what someone else is doing with their money; that's really just between them and God anyway. I want to challenge that notion.

It's very common for Christians to stress the importance of accountability, for example, with regard to our sexuality. This is especially true for men, who regularly develop small groups and accountability partnerships to guard against lust (I'm sure women do this as well). We also have countless abstinence programs and marital sessions to guide Christians in living lives of sexual purity or maturity.

But, if we are serious about following Jesus' call to live lives of generous, sacrificial love, then Christians SHOULD be letting each other know what they’re doing with their money, and we should be holding each other accountable in that area as much, if not more than, we do with our sexual struggles (and we don’t do a very good job with that either!).

I suspect the main reason we don't like people making concrete statements about how much money someone ought to make is because we don't want anyone telling ME how much money I should make. But, if the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, then this attitude already reflects how much we love our money! And that means we are all in constant danger of falling into evil... which is precisely the reason we need accountability! Accountability shines a light onto how uncomfortable it makes us, as Christians, to take seriously Jesus' call to give away as much as we can, and live simply and sacrificially.

I certainly feel this discomfort in my own life. I know that it is a constant struggle to discern what it means to live simply and generously. I know that we all have needs, and responsibilities, and it is not wrong to want to take care of one's family, or to be responsible in meeting my/their needs. But if, at any point, these needs become more important than my living as a follower of Christ, then I've wandered off the path. This is not judgmentalism; it's simply a biblical truth (see Matt. 10:37, Luke 9:57-62).

I certainly have a long way to go in learning to trust God with my whole life, including my money. But I know that as I follow Christ, I will slowly learn to be more sacrificial and generous, out of my love for God, that flows into the ways I love other people. For love is from God, as 1 John says, and God’s love is seen first and foremost in Jesus Christ. Either that makes a difference in how we live, or it doesn't. But to say we follow Christ, while refusing to let go of our material wealth, is dishonest. If that is our dilemma, we have already made our choice. But, thanks be to God, our choices are never the last word – Jesus (the “Word” made flesh) is the last word!

Friday, September 11, 2009

My dad's birthday...

My dad turned 70 yesterday! Happy Birthday Dad!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Graham Ward on revelation and interpretation...

"... Christian doxa has never held that the Scriptures gave direct access to the revelation of the divine and were themselves divine. The Scriptures bear witness to but are not themselves the Word of God. [Note: There has been a minority view which regards the Bible as verbally inspired, but even this is not quite the same.]

However, neither has orthodox teaching simply held that the revelation of Jesus Christ is a past event attested in the Scriptures. The Christian tradition maintains that Christ reveals Himself today, in and through the work of the Church...

Revelation is an ongoing activity, unfolding with the world. The coming to an understanding of what is 'revealed'... is inseparable then from a triple hermeneutical activity. First, with respect to interpreting the Scriptures; secondly with respect to the teaching of the Church; and thirdly, with a discernment of the contemporary work of Christ in the context of any activity undertaken."

(from Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hauerwas on the Constantinian shift...

"Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a church, but one had to have faith that God was governing history. After Constantine, people assumed as a fact that God was governing history through the emperor, but one had to take it on faith that within this nominally Christian mass there was a community of true believers... The nature of the church vanished into the invisible realm. But in this way the New Testament message was fundamentally misunderstood, inner-worldliness became a principle."

(Stanley Hauerwas, from Performing the Faith)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rowan Williams on "Living in Truth"...

"Living in truth means living where Jesus lives... When Jesus speaks of being 'consecrated in the truth,' the reader is immediately invited to connect this with Jesus' consecration of himself, which can only mean the death he is to endure. Truth and death are brought together with alarming closeness: truthful living is the full acceptance of the real and concrete danger of pursuing faithfulness in this world; it is an acceptance of risk and mortality. It is also a letting go of what denies such mortality, what deceives us into believing that faith will not put us at risk - literally at risk of persecution and death, and more widely at risk of losing those securities and defenses which tame the God we worship in Christ."

- Rowan Williams, from "Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment"

Friday, August 28, 2009

Charles Marsh on the irony of the "conservative" Christian elite in America...

"There is a remarkable... irony in the theological habits of the Christian right, which is entirely lost on the secular and religious media, but which I wish to note here: Every time we hear the voice of the Christian nationalist, or the claims, implicit or direct, that God is on our side, or such boasts as... 'America is a Christian nation,' we are in fact hearing the voice (unwittingly, perhaps, but unmistakably) of the Protestant liberal tradition...

The story of Protestant liberalism begins with this momentous adaptation: Metaphysical reality, the doctrines and beliefs of the church, are meaningful only as lessons that help organize human experience... As for being descriptions of the triune God, the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who on the third day raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and all the rest -- the doctrines and beliefs of the church are empty of objective meaning.

Thus, the liberal Protestant tradition, inasmuch as it claims that the knowledge of God must be based on some mode or dimension of human experience, leads to a theological dead end. Indeed, it leads to the conclusion that God is but an extension of human experience, a projection of human need and longing... The liberal theologians tried so hard to accommodate the gospel to the modern world that they ended up surrendering the faith 'to the patterns, forces, and movements of human history and civilization...' (Karl Barth quote)

When the conservative religious elites speak of the Christian nation, Christian principles, Christian values, or Christian prosperity in quasi-theological language, they are standing firmly in the tradition of Protestant liberalism. In this way, the conservative Christian elites have become the new Protestant liberals: Christ is the projection and guarantor of our values, ambitions, and power..."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another reason why everyone should CITE SOURCES!

I don't care if you're an internet blogger or a big-name academic, please cite your sources. Otherwise people start believing all sorts of ridiculous crap. Here's an example:

Today, during a Google search, I came across this item posted on July 29 on someone's myspace blog (ok, not exactly reliable to begin with, I know):

Worlds oldest Bible found, and it contradicts modern bibles
Category: Religion and Philosophy

Read it for yourself, it's true. Just look around the internet with the word "Codex." It is now considered to be the worlds oldest written text of the Christian religion. Even though it is believed to be written in the mid 4th century, after the death of Jesus, there seems to be no mention of this Jesus person. Not just him, not his resurrection, not his "miracles", nothing. The text also contradicts scriptures in modern Bibles. On the parchment, which is derived from animal hide, there seem to be numerous corrections, including line outs among the original text. I am not a religious scholar, or Sherlock Holmes, but I am going to say that it sounds like the Christian religion had better start basing their beliefs on something else, besides the Bible.

Now, unless this person has access to some secret information, here are a couple of the examples I found that are most likely what they are talking about:

Nothing at all like what the blogger describes. It's a description of Codex Sinaiticus being transferred online. Jesus is mentioned all over the place in that. It's online now, read it (learn Greek first!) What's more, anyone with a bit of knowledge about biblical history already knows about the "contradictions" and "numerous corrections" found in the many variant sections of text that have been recovered over the centuries.

My point isn't really to argue whether the Bible is reliable or not. It's simply to say that this person, and his/her blogging friends, now believe something that is patently NOT TRUE, unless they took the time to look up the sources for themselves (which some people certainly do - and kudos to them!). But PLEASE, bloggers/writers/thinkers/etc... cite your sources! Don't make us have to do your work for you. And don't make us waste our time looking for something that isn't there.

Paul Janz on Christ's command...

" in Christ, and in the 'call of his grace' (Gal. 1:6) which is enabled through what he accomplishes in the historically enacted innocence of his mortal life into resurrection, we are offered a new command... This new command is the definitive gospel summons of Jesus: 'follow me.' ...[T]he call 'follow me' is a divine injunction and thus a revealed one, and for this reason it is not first and foremost a summons to an 'imitation'... the call... is rather at one and the same time a summons to faith and simultaneously a summons to obedience. That is, it is a summons to make real 'the righteousness which comes by faith' - i.e. to become in our bodies instruments of his resurrection-righteousness (Rom. 6:13)..."

(from The Command of Grace)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 6...

Ok, so let's keep going here... I am going to be summarizing more information in these last few posts on William Abraham's book, so they won't be quite as in-depth... but I don't think anyone will mind that. :-)

As we discussed, Abraham's central thesis in "Crossing the Threshold..." is that divine revelation, in the "special" sense (that is, not the natural revelation which is available to everyone, such as the beauty of creation, etc), is an event in one's life that is a "world-constituting experience" (p. 95) that can be described as crossing a threshold into an entirely new way of seeing, experiencing, and knowing. This statement, as an epistemological presupposition, has just as much a priori rational grounding as any other epistemological statement. So, the question then becomes: Once we consider this possibility, what happens? The rest of the book is, to some degree, Abraham's answer to that question.

In chapter six, he evaluates the relationship between divine revelation and "canonical doctrine." Again, by revelation, Abraham is referring to what he calls a "rich vision of divine action." (p. 96) In other words, revelation is multifaceted. Abraham describes doctrine as that which guides the Church as a whole. The canonical doctrine of the Church provides certain boundaries or guidelines within which revelation might be properly assessed. It is most clearly articulated in the creeds (he references the Nicene creed specifically).

Abraham distinguishes his approach from those like Alvin Plantinga who, though providing a great deal of valuable ideas to theological epistemology, do not need to rely on a specific theory of divine revelation. Rather, Plantinga relies upon the implicit trust in the Holy Spirit to reveal what is true in the teaching of the Church. Where we "hear" the Spirit rightly, God reveals truth to us, including doctrine.

While Abraham is quite sympathetic to this view, and indeed finds in invaluable in many ways, he does not think it can extend far enough to cover all claims to revelation. In other words, philosophical analysis can only be as extensive as the initial claim to divine revelation which it presupposes. If one is going to use Plantinga's approach to defend Christianity, one has to presuppose already that the doctrines of Christianity are properly revealed to us. So, what does this mean?

Abraham begins by noting the perplexing nature of standard answers to this question. First, there is the common notion that simply appealing to the Scriptures (and/or tradition) will give us viable reasons for our claims to revelation as doctrine. But which view of scripture? Abraham lists a variety of approaches; the point being that they are all more or less applicable, and each one has adherents who claim their interpretation is the proper one. But this is just begging the question - why this or that interpretation? It's a never-ending "battle for the Bible."

As Abraham points out, such an approach results in the primary function of the Bible becoming "a foundation and test of the church's teaching. To secure this end, some theory of divine revelation has been indispensable." (p. 102) So, scripture itself, although it is claimed to be the foundation, is dependent upon an epistemological theory -- which has the reverse effect of making the Bible subject to a particular philosophical theory. And this, of course, is a problem, because that would mean the theory is more important to us than divine revelation!

This is why Abraham actually asserts that the notion of sola scriptura is actually a theory "that has outlived its usefulness." (p. 103) In his estimation, the doctrine of "Scripture alone" has actually become a Protestant imitation of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, inasmuch as it ascribes inerrancy in a broad sense to a source of divine revelation, without considering the epistemological assumptions required for such a view.

As a solution to this dilemma, Abraham proposes an approach that, not surprisingly, begins with the understanding that revelation is a "world-constituting event." (p. 104) This is, for the believer, an understanding that is brought to light as we reflect upon the history of the actions of God, in Israel and in the Church. Once we have decided that the new reality resulting from crossing the threshold into divine revelation is viable, everything else begins to fit together in a way that provides us with the epistemological background needed to trust in the Bible as a source of revelation.

So, with regard to, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, Abraham states: "[T]he doctrine of the Trinity arose over time out of the deep interaction of the special revelation of God in Israel, the extraspecial revelation of God in Jesus Christ, experience of God in the Holy Spirit, and sanctified creative imagination and reason. It is radically incomplete and inadequate to trace the kind of revolutionary change in the doctrine of God represented by the Nicene Creed merely to the divine revelation enshrined in scripture. We must also take into account the place of religious experience, imagination, and reason." (p. 106)

[note: of course, in using the word 'imagination' he is not saying the belief is imaginary!]

Of course, one rejoinder might be that none of this makes any sense without the prior assumption that the Bible is true, since that's the source of our stories about God, Israel, Jesus and the Church. But Abraham would point out that even though the Bible is the "source", so to speak, to limit our understanding of doctrine to 'what the Bible says' is to discount the work of the Spirit in the Church, which is what enabled believers to first write down their stories, and then to develop their beliefs in light of what their experiences with God had revealed to them. God's revelation is bigger than the "book," even though the book is its central locus of written material.

I think I'll stop here for now... I was going to include chapter seven (on Conversion) here too, but I'll save that for next time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

David Law on Scripture, subjectivity, and "ciphers"...

Not exactly sure what I think about all this yet, but it's an intriguing approach to contemplating biblical authority...

[Note: "Cipher" is a philosophical term used by Karl Jaspers to describe terms in human language that are not signs or symbols but terms that open up human beings to the reality of the "Transcendent" (aka God).]

"[T]he inspiration of the Bible is situated in three areas. Inspiration is a feature of human being... the opening up of human being to Transcendence and the (trans)formation of human existence in the light of Transcendence... But this 'existential inspiration' and grounding of human being in Transcendence is not self-produced. It comes about through engagement with the ciphers of Transcendence communicated by the Bible. Insofar as the existential coherence of the human being is dependent on the ciphers, the source of these ciphers, namely the Bible, can be said to be inspired. Finally, inspiration is situated in Transcendence-itself... These three factors and the dialectical relationship that exists between them constitute the complex phenomenon that is inspiration.

The knowledge the Bible provides is not 'objective' in the normal sense, for the knowledge which it provides is first and foremost existential knowledge. This does not mean, however, that the epistemological content of the Bible has no objective dimension or cannot be objectively expressed... However, the crucial thing is that this objectivity is not central, but secondary to, and dependent on, the existential impact and content of these statements... [however], the believer comes to realize that this existential development is possible only if God is prior to this development."

(from "Inspiration" by David Law)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 5...

Ok, back to the series...

In Pt. 4 we examined Abraham's claim that divine revelation deserves to be given centrality in relation to the epistemological warrants for canonical theism (or, indeed, any theistic epistemology). Now we look at his argument for why this is so. Essentially, as we will see, his argument revolves around the assertion that revelation has the effect of constituting an entirely new world of epistemological reality.

Abraham's central thesis begins with his recognition that the God of canonical theism is understood to be a personal God; that is, God is an agent who acts. Therefore, it follows that we can become acquainted with God by becoming acquainted with God's actions in the world. But how does one begin to establish God's actions in the world? Abraham returns to his previous point concerning knowledge: We have no reason to doubt our initial interpretation of our experience a priori. Given this, we can have some confidence that our experience of God's action in the world follows a similar line -- if we have an innate capacity to perceive God, then we should also grant the possibility that this capacity is, in fact, leading us to perceive God.

This, as we have mentioned previously, sounds circular, and Abraham concedes as much. But, he argues, this is not unexpected, nor is it an insurmountable obstacle. But it does offer him a direction in which to develop his own theory: It is reasonable that if there is a God, and if we have a capacity to know that God, and if God is acting in the world, then we can come to know God as we interpret our perceptions of God's actions. But, we must note, that is a lot of 'if's'!

So, how does revelation assist Abraham's endeavor? Intriguingly, he appeals to Soren Kierkegaard at this point, which is notable if only because Abraham appears to find SK's epistemology generally unhelpful, being as it falls under the category of the "fideist approach." (see Pt. 1 of this series) Of course, I am fairly certain that I am oversimplifying Abraham's view on this point, and I think that Abraham himself might admit to finding more value in the 'fideist' approach than he seems to indicate in this book.

At any rate, Abraham calls upon SK's category of "prophet" as having a particular epistemological advantage - one which has the effect of drastically changing the playing field of knowledge. In SK, the prophet differs from the genius as such: One is a person of extraordinary ability who is able to develop new ideas or systems (think of Einstein as an example). The prophet, on the other hand, need not be a genius, for their new idea comes directly from divine revelation. In other words, there is an epistemological separation between the genius and the prophet that is grounded in different sources.

(Side note: I question Abraham's point here, not because of his use of SK, but because of his conclusion. I would need to research this more, but is SK saying that there is an epistemological or ontological difference between the genius and the prophet? Abraham [footnote 3, p. 82] states that SK never makes a claim one way or the other. If it is epistemological, then Abraham's point holds. But if it is even somewhat ontological, that would appear to pose a problem for Abraham's view. I guess we need to re-examine Abraham's understanding of the relationship between epistemology and ontology...)

At any rate, if the prophet has access to a separate epistemological source, then there is an entirely new framework for what counts as "evidence" for theistic epistemology.

As Abraham is quick to point out, the typical philosopher or theologian rejects this for a variety of reasons: Revelation is subjective and arbitrary; revelation is divisive and upsets our reasonable assumptions; revelation cuts us off from further reasoning; revelation is often used by authority as a way to gain power. (p. 82-83) Abraham responds to these criticisms by asserting that revelation is what he calls a "threshold concept," a concept that is as viable a foundation as reason, experience, intuition, etc. (p. 85)

Although revelation is not necessarily immediate or direct (like experience), it nevertheless can be employed as a term with similar value. Why? Because revelation is an epistemological category. Just as one has to assume the reliability of reason to trust it as an epistemological category, so one has to assume the reliability of revelation. To distrust tells us nothing about the category, it only tells us about our preconceptions regarding any theistic belief.

Now, it may seem as though Abraham has just confirmed the aforementioned criticisms - hasn't he just effectively cut off conversation by subjectively cutting off further reflection upon revelation? But, if we say this, then we have to also ask why we intuitively trust reason? Why do we assume that our rational approaches to epistemology are reliable? The non-theist would, presumably, argue that centuries of clinical and experimental study have shown us which concepts are reliable and which are not - and theistic concepts would fall into the 'unreliable' category.

But, this is only a viable opinion if one already trusts, for example, the scientific method and rational inquiry. The reality is that such trust develops alongside that inquiry, in tandem, as it were. But this leaves open the possibility that theistic revelation is also a viable category, inasmuch as it too develops in tandem with inquiry into its validity. This is because the theist has been taken into an epistemological reality which privileges the category of revelation. Abraham explains it this way:

"[O]nce the term 'revelation' is deployed, it is simply and totally applicable; and once revelation is accepted, one enters a whole new world where everything is liable to be seen in a whole new light." (p. 85-86) He compares it to reaching the summit of a mountain, where suddenly everything can be seen from a new light, and new angles, which create a new field of vision. So, unlike other epistemological categories, which are naturally occurring in all self-reflective persons, revelation is a category in which we may or may not partake, depending on the situation. It means we have to re-think everything.

Now, we are still left with the accusations of circular reasoning, but it is no longer the only possibility. In fact, Abraham seems to indicate that circularity is a false argument against theism, though he doesn't elaborate. (see p. 88) But he does concede that outside the setting of revelation as a threshold concept, all of the notions that follow from revelation will appear as question begging. However, he is adamant that the question begging disappears once we have crossed the threshold, and further asserts that this alleviates the criticisms of revelation, since seeing revelation as a new epistemological reality offers more than it eliminates.

It is an ingenious application of revelation as an epistemological category. But, there is still a problem: Abraham admits it is only possible to see this new reality, even to be open to it, on the far side of its recognition in our lives. This, he must surely see, has actually repositioned the criticism of narrowing options in a different setting! Abraham states that revelation is a new world that "calls for the straining of every intellectual nerve and muscle in order to fathom the treasures made available." (p. 89) But since this only applies to those who have crossed the 'threshold', it automatically cuts off anyone who hasn't received revelation from having a valuable epistemological dialogue with one who has.

So, Abraham's subsequent claims that revelation can be a source of unity between varying epistemologies would, I assume, ring hollow for the unbeliever or skeptic: It is one thing to be excited about studying the varying approaches to knowledge stemming from an agreed upon set of grounding principles, it is another to not even agree on those grounding principles. In spite of Abraham's prescient call to humility when responding epistemologically to revelation, it seems somewhat naive to think that non-theists would be excited to work together with someone who thinks that they just haven't 'crossed the threshold' yet to true knowledge. So, unfortunately, it seems, the criticism of revelation still stands.

To be fair, Abraham points out the importance of critical appraisal of claims to divine revelation. He is right to note that there is a distinction between critically assessing the reality of revelation, and accepting revelation which we then seek to rationally resolve. In the latter case, we are effectively placing reason above revelation, and undermining the entire process. But, to ask whether the "crossing the threshold" has actually occurred is a viable use of reason in relation to revelation.

To say this another way, Abraham recognizes that claims to revelation have been often abusive and manipulative. Besides, if God and God's revelation are indeed trustworthy, then they are able to withstand scrutiny. God, Abraham points out, "dares to trust himself to us, knowing that his identity and action on our behalf can withstand our intellectual inquiry as much as our wickedness and folly." (p. 93) So, we can continue to hold onto our conviction that we have experienced the world-altering transition into the world of revelation, even as we honestly seek to evaluate whether our experiences are valid.

Of course, this is not as easy to do as it is to write. Honestly and critically examining our beliefs can be quite unsettling. Hopefully, as we do so, we will not only grow in our knowledge, but in our faith as well. In the remainder of the series, we will examine how Abraham applies the central concept of revelation as a threshold to various areas. I will also cover the remaining chapters a bit more briefly: I will take on two chapters for each post (6-7, 8-9, 10-11). We'll see how that works out!