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.