Friday, June 26, 2009

Christianity: A "common belief system" basic to America?

Recently, I was sent an online commentary in which the author, radio personality Peter Heck, laments (as many conservative pundits seem to do these days) the apparent loss of America's grounding in the Christian "belief system", and the inevitable degradation of our society which will surely result - if it hasn't already - from such a turning away from our supposed founding principles.

As Heck asserts in his article, "Our Founding Fathers were wise and learned individuals who were students of political philosophy. When crafting the basis for our civilization, they could have chosen any of a number of belief systems, but they chose Christianity for a reason... it was because they understood that the absolute, moral principles that come from Christian scripture – respect for life, private property rights, charity, frugality, stewardship, benevolence, peaceful living, responsible liberty – were the best friend to a free society and should be encouraged."

Now I recognize that, in many ways, our society has become far more morally lenient than we have been in the past, and I agree that this leniency sometimes leads to unfortunate consequences. On the other hand, the status quo has often led to just as many negative ends. Christian virtues alone do not mean a nation will avoid making terrible mistakes.

However, Heck seems unaware of the possibility that such an ethical limit-expansion is precisely the result of the American experiment. For one cannot establish a nation founded on the core principles that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" and that governments must derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed," and reasonably expect the members of that society to stand idly by and ignore what they see as limitations to their own achievement of such aims.

Those who abide by a certain moral guideline may certainly disagree with those who seek to change that guideline - in fact, that is to be expected. However, we live in a nation where it is also expected that, as we grow and change, there will be challenges to the system. Some of these will be accepted by the society at large and some will not. One might choose to lament the loss of a particular moral grounding, but we should hardly be surprised that, in a nation that prizes individual freedom and "unalienable" rights above all else, each of the myriad humans who inhabits our society will seek to have their own rights and freedoms firmly established in both the public and private arenas.

Further - and far more important, in my view - while I am sure that Mr. Heck is well-versed in political theory, I am not convinced he has an equal grasp on the essence of Christian theology.

For the above list of "Christian" virtues, as valuable as they are, are NOT particularly Christian values. In fact, the majority of the world's religions could claim them as their own. (Indeed, even the majority of Muslims, whom Heck seems to set apart as one of the religions who wouldn't be a good foundation for a free nation, would appeal to their own Scriptures in defense of their respect for life, charity, frugality, etc.) No, what separates Christianity and makes it unique is not a list of virtues that can be nationally claimed. Rather, the unique claim of Christianity is that followers of Christ ought to be willing to give up all their rights, not for the sake of a political agenda, but for Christ's kingdom. That is, Christ asks us for an allegiance greater than our allegiance to any nation.

The type of "Christianity" that Mr. Heck longs for is not Christianity at all, but a form of civil religion that is subjected to the all-encompassing American ideals that have made our nation a place of freedom, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. This political system has many great qualities, to be sure. But being equatable to the Christian faith is not one of them. In fact, it is safe to say that if Christians were to truly follow Christ's teachings and live his Gospel, many more of them would be branded as "enemies of the state." For what nation wants to have as its majority belief system the willingness to lay down one's life for something higher than the safety of the nation?

More to the point, do we really believe that American individualism and the accompanying "pursuit of happiness" would be heralded by Christ as values to which his followers should aspire? And yet, many Americans seem to be unaware of any distinction between the values of our nation and the values of Christ.

Now, of course, this is not a simple either/or dichotomy. It is certainly possible to be a faithful believer in Christ while also living as a productive member of our American society. But while one can, in some circumstances, be dedicated completely to Christ and also live as a faithful American, one cannot be completely dedicated to America and also live as a faithful Christian. Why? Precisely because America is not founded on Christianity. It will often fail to maintain the image of a "Christian nation" which has been foolishly foisted upon it by so many well-meaning Americans.

When America fails to look like a Christian nation, we ought not look to some previous time when we were morally upright, and seek to bring back that era. Rather, we ought to grieve in our idolatry and foolishness, call ourselves to repentance, pray for the healing of our nation, and look to the One who is our true source of hope: not a belief system, but a person -- Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

it wasn't that long ago...

Lest we think that the U.S. is really beyond doing/thinking terrible things, this week we heard recordings of former president Nixon's comments that abortion would be appropriate in the case of "a black and a white." And then, there's this:

Always remember that even the country you love is capable of grave sins (even today), and that Christ calls his followers to be citizens of a kingdom that is not like the nations of the earth.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Re-posting: Commentary on Iran

Although a bit biased to the left, this is, I think, nevertheless a well-reasoned and informative commentary on the current state of ideology and politics in Iran:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Westphal on being a good listener...

"If I am a good listener... I try to hear what is said, but I listen just as hard for what is not said and for what is said between the lines. I am not in a hurry, for there is no pre-appointed destination for the conversation. There is no need to get there, for we are already here; and in this present I am able to be fully present to the one who speaks. The speaker is not an object to be categorized or manipulated, but a subject whose life situation is enough like my own that I can understand it in spite of the differences between us... This does not mean that I never say anything, but I am more likely to ask questions than to issue manifestos or make accusations."

(From "God, Guilt, and Death")

Friday, June 19, 2009

this week's "my favorite lyrics"...

Jamie Barnes - Three Suns (from the album "Honey From the Ribcage")

Idleness is the devil's playground
He's spinning me, dizzily, on the misery-go-round
Legs and hands are bound
Idolatry is the lover's defect
We're falling down, bowing down, with our faces pressed to the ground
Legs and hands are bound

But you and I know that those statues guard the shore
But you and I know, we can see it out our window
That there's three suns on the rise, just over the highway that goes out my way
When I take you home
We both know

Fireworks are a celebration
When lives are spared and sirens blare
But when thunder threatens overhead we're running scared
Anxiety is a mental breakdown
'Obsessiveness,' 'compulsiveness,' and social paralysis
A big selfish mess

But you and I know that this little child will grow
But you and I know, regardless of the snow
Because there's three suns on the rise, just over the highway that goes out my way
When I take you home
We both know

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sarah Coakley's interesting approach to systematic theology...

In a recent speech/essay, theologian Sarah Coakley described her current project, a systematic theology which she is calling "théologie totale" (total theology). I'm very interested in reading her book when it finally comes out. Below is an excerpt of her speech which describes some of her methodology:

"[Théologie totale] is devoted precisely to the excavation and evaluation of what has previously been neglected: to theological fieldwork in a variety of illuminating social and political contexts (not merely those of privilege, in fact especially not); to religious cultural productions of the arts and the imagination; to neglected or side-lined texts; and to the examination of the differences made to theology by such factors as gender, class, or race (all these relate to chapters in my forthcoming systematic project). In short, théologie totale makes the bold claim that the more systematic one’s intentions, the more necessary the exploration of such dark and neglected corners; and that, precisely as a theology in via, théologie totale continually risks destabilization and redirection.

In an important sense, then, this form of systematic theology must always also remain, in principle, unsystematic if by that one means open to the possibility of risk and challenge. This playful oxymoron (unsystematic systematics) applies just to the extent that the undertaking renders itself persistently vulnerable to interruptions from the unexpected—through its radical practices of attention to the Spirit."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Graham Ward on reading...

"Reading is dangerous; for the powers it incarnates and releases are unforeseen. A butterfly spreading its wings in Osaka can have tidal effects off the coast of Portugal, according to popular accounts of what contemporary scientists define as 'chaos theory'. Reading, or the appropriation or performance of a representation, similarly has indeterminate consequences."

My translation: Read! Who knows what might happen?! :-)

Friday, June 12, 2009

As long as every idiot gets to share their opinion...

Here's mine, on Letterman vs. Palin:

1. Dave made a crude, thoughtless joke about a public figure -- the same thing he and other TV comedians have done for over 20 years.

2. Palin made the stupid mistake of responding and blowing the whole thing out of proportion and giving Dave MORE publicity (and herself as well?).

3. A bunch of people all across the media landscape have decided to milk the story and turn into some sort of morality lesson.

Here's my advice to all parties involved: SHUT UP. You're all making things worse.

Girard is still right: we all need our scapegoats.

Looking forward...

Wow, the weather in Seattle has been great lately! I'm really looking forward to summer. I'm also looking forward to a couple things that will be exciting for me, at least: I will be TA'ing for a couple more classes at Fuller NW (a summer course in philosophy or ethics, and then systematic theology 1 in the fall), and I am going to be one of the speakers at our church's "summer series" on theologians and their ideas. Apparently (awaiting final confirmation) I will be lecturing on Bonhoeffer. Should be fun!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

this week's "my favorite song lyrics"...

Well, I've posted about 1/2 of these lyrics on Facebook over the last month, but I thought this song would be perfect for the next installment of "Geoff's favorite song lyrics" or whatever I'm calling this semi-regular blog posting. So, without further ado:

King's X - We Are Finding Who We Are

Forever is a mountain we've yet to climb
Tears are a part of what is yet to leave behind
Strength in numbers, all you need is two
Everyone's a winner, yet still so many lose

We are finding who we are; We can see forever

The volume of emotion erupting in our souls
A quiet revelation quickly takes ahold
Patience is a virtue, but she won't always wait
Dissention is the tension, it's what we've learned to hate

We are finding who we are; We can see forever

It was late September, I remember well
Memories of living, the old man told the tale
Of rising and falling and cruelty and kind
The thing the old man told me truly blew my mind

We are finding who we are, 'cause we can see forever
I know it's been said so many times before
I once was blind but now I see
And sometimes it just makes no sense
But i believe yeah

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Kierkegaardian approach to the Tiller murder...

Over at the Inhabitatio Dei blog, there has been a discussion of the political/ethical issues raised in the recent murder of the abortion provider, Dr. Tiller. The discussion has centered primarily on when, if ever, people ought to stand up and oppose their government -- the assertion being that if abortion truly is the murder of millions of innocent lives, then it can be argued that most pro-life supporters really aren't radical enough. That got me thinking.

My own approach in assessing situations like this tends to be heavily influenced by Kierkegaard's "suspension of the ethical." In other words, the decision to kill Dr. Tiller (assuming, of course, a genuine ethical dilemma for his murderer, rather than a response out of vengeance or insanity... keep this in mind) is somewhat similar to Abraham's dilemma: Do I obey God and commit this crime in order to save innocent lives, or do I obey the ethical imperative (instituted by God as well): Do not murder?

This, of course, leads to at least two other vital questions. One, how does the person know that God is actually commanding him/her to kill? Two, is the person ready to face the consequences for their actions? Because, as SK so vividly describes in "Fear and Trembling," suspending the ethical will most likely result in one becoming a universal pariah. This second question, I think, is actually the more important of the two.

What I mean is this: Let's begin with the assumption -- and, to be fair, there is considerable reason to believe that the Bible does NOT advocate such a thing, though that discussion is for another day -- that we have a mandate in Scripture to protect innocent life, even if it means killing an evil person to save innocent lives. If so, then it reasonable to conclude that God may reveal to a person that they ought to kill someone. After all, according to a prima facie interpretation, God told people in the Old Testament to kill all the time. Here, I say - and I realize this may sound terribly cruel and wrong - do it!

If you really believe that God is asking do to this thing to stave off genocide, don't shrink back. Do what you must. But - and this is important! - don't try to get away with it, either! The fact that Dr. Tiller's killer attempted to escape the scene, and is now attempting to defend his actions, shows that he was never completely committed to the act. There is reason to doubt that his act was, in fact, a genuine suspension of the ethical. This is precisely why he is guilty. If he was truly following God's command and suspending the ethical, he would refuse to defend his actions (indeed, he cannot!) and accept his fate - even if it means death - as the retaliation expected from the ethical system that he chose to suspend.

Further, as the discussion referenced above suggests, if abortion is indeed a genocide, as pro-life advocates claim, then they ought to be bold enough to stand beside the one who has heard from God, even if it means their own persecution or punishment. The fact that most pro-life supporters have not stood by Dr. Tiller's killer indicates that either they 1) don't really believe the murderer has heard from God, 2) don't take the abortion problem seriously enough, or 3) think there is another, better way to deal with the abortion problem.

I would guess that most pro-life people opt for option 3. The question then becomes, what is this better option? Here is where "the rubber meets the road," in my estimation. If we are unwilling to accept the radical horror that comes with the potential suspension of the ethical, then perhaps we who are pro-life (and, yes, I am pro-life) ought to also admit that our own motives are conflicted at best, and not be so quick to ascribe evil motives to those on the other side of the abortion issue.

It seems clear, in situations like the Tiller murder, that there is a level of inconsistency within the pro-life position. If we oppose government-sponsored murder, how can we not rise up against it? Is it really possible to consistently oppose genocide using non-violent means? Some have done a better job of articulating this than others. But I think there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. There needs to be more consistency if the pro-life message is going to resonate with those who see abortion as their best alternative. If we aren't consistent, why would we expect more from anyone else? This, I think, is one of the lessons of the horrible tragedy of Dr. Tiller's murder.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Blatant re-posting from the Experimental Theology blog...

With apologies to Richard Beck, I just had to re-post this segment from his recent post, Freud & Faith: Part Four, The Potty... because it's brilliant and provocative... and talks about poop. ha!

"Why did Freud spend so much time thinking about the psychological effects of toilet training? Well, for one simple reason. Toilet training is the first time a child confronts the fact that society has claims on how we use our bodies. Prior to toilet training, the child, as we've discussed, is raw Id, a conscienceless gratification machine. Children, we've noted, are like animals. This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than the fact that children are not expected to control their bowel movements or urination. They can pretty much poop and pee wherever they are. Much to the inconvenience of parents.

So it probably comes as quite a shock to the child when, apparently out of the blue, the parents start asking the child to control her bladder. The child must be thinking, "Seriously? You want me to hold it in!?"

Yes, yes we do. We want you to hold it in. And, yes, it's uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable at times. But your job is to hold it in and endure the discomfort until you can get to the bathroom. It's time to grow up. It's time to step away from the animal world and join the housebroken humans.

Society has claims upon my body. I can't do whatever I want with it. I can't hit you with it or expose it to you. I have to manage my body and endure physical discomfort at times. My body is not my own.

Interestingly, this is a very biblical idea. Take, for instance, Paul's comments regarding marriage in 1 Corinthians:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
Beyond marriage, I think you can also claim that, as Paul sees it, the bodies of the entire Christian community belong to each other. For Paul, the notion of the body is a communal notion. My body is not my own to do with as I please. As a Christian my physical body is community property. Which is a radical notion to Western ears. But it shouldn't be. Think of potty training.

In short, the realization that society has claims on our bodies is the beginning of our moral sense. That is, toilet training, learning to be a "good" boy or girl, is our first systematic moral education. The first lessons on how bodies and their impulses are to be mastered in light of social demands.

Consequently, the language of goodness and sinfulness is intimately tied up with the experience of potty training. To be good is to be "clean." Cleanliness is next to godliness. The color white is the color of holiness. Conversely, to be bad is to be "dirty," "filthy," or "unclean." The prodigal son finds himself with the pigs. We can make a "mess" of our lives, morally speaking. And the central ritual of Christian salvation is a bath.

In short, our most primitive metaphors concerning morality reach back to the very first experience we had when society first made claims upon our bodies. So it was then. So it is now."