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)