Friday, April 30, 2010

the future is up in the air...

or at least it feels that way. I am now in a position that is rather difficult; I have been accepted to Oxford for a PhD in Theology. Yay! But, as it's a UK school and I am an American, there is apparently very little funding available for me. Boo! And, I have to fill out a form explaining where I am going to get the money to pay for everything while in the UK. Double boo!

I mean, I understand why they do it, and it's a good procedure to have in place - don't want students coming who can't afford to be there. But as someone who is 1) poor and unemployed, and 2) does not feel right about taking out a six-figure loan, I am a bit worried about the whole situation. I mean, God knows what the future holds and maybe things will work out better than I can imagine (C'mon Scripture promises! hehe), but I still have a decision to make. Prayers for wisdom appreciated!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Paul Holmer on theological trends...

from The Grammar of Faith:

"We do Christianity an injustice... if we think that the lively and widespread interests in various subjects, what can be called fashions, are the points of departure for addressing others about the faith. It is the very stuff of fashions not to last; and theology which gets an easy hearing will as quickly lose the public ear.

A theology that is immediately attractive is often a poor introduction to the Christian life and thought. One must never entertain, therefore, a picture of a Christian theology as a net of causes and reasons, an intellectual proposal, which by constant assimilation of novelties, by continual adaptation to new circumstances, will reclaim the masses by its sweet reasonableness."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A "Christian" nation, again...

Here is a short, helpful article explaining what is at stake in the argument for/against America as a "Christian" nation:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The bind of responsibility...

As I've been thinking about ethics, especially with Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard looming in the background, it's become fairly obvious to me (though I may be clueless! :-D) that the struggle to find a universal ethic is ultimately a dilemma that humans are unable to escape. It is a goal that we will never reach. The mildly interesting example in my previous post can serve to highlight this. If we have a responsibility to make sure we are always treating our friend the best way possible, and we are also attempting to live responsibly with regard to 1) our personal worldview and 2) the cultural ethics in which we are enmeshed, well... sooner or later, something has to give.

This is one reason why pragmatism is such a seemingly simple solution: We can't possibly know the outcome of every possible ethical choice, and so we make assessments based upon probabilities and ratios. At one level, this is all that we can do - There is no way to know all the factors that, say, may make one life more valuable than another, and so, as the old story goes, if we have to allow 10 people to die to save 1,000, that is our only ethical option. Of course, no one is really happy about this, but what else can we do?

What's interesting, and rather unsettling, about Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard, is that both of them, in different ways, seem to say something else: There may be a time when, for a higher purpose that cannot be ethically/rationally quantified, it may be right to allow 1,000 to die for the sake of 10. This is not because the 10 are kings or generals, or something like that. That is just another form of pragmatism or utilitarian thinking. No, it is because, in God's 'economy', numbers don't really matter. And neither do ethical principles, at least the way we conceive of them in our human logic.

This is, to say the least, troubling... and deserves more discussion... which I will hopefully have time to do in the near future.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

a little thought-experiment...

I've been thinking about the concept of cultural obligation and how to interpret our responsibility to the various circles of existence in which we find ourselves. Now, I am going to quite intentionally bracket out Christian theology here, not because it isn't important, but just for the sake of the 'experiment.'

So, my thought is this: If we establish cultural values, such as politeness, fairness, honesty, faithfulness, etc, on what are those values based? Do they have any genuine ethical content outside of what we, as human beings, give them? How would we determine this?

Just as an example: Suppose I decide to make a comment that is true, but 'insensitive.' One example might be, "Do I look good wearing this color?" Now, suppose we did all sorts of empirical studies to show that a particular skin tone looks best with a particular color, and we analyzed personal preference to find out what people liked and why, and we could provide a great deal of evidence to show that, in fact, a solid amount of proof is available to show that you do NOT look good in that color.

The question then becomes, which is more ethically appropriate, and why: 1) The obligation to tell the person that they do not look good in that color - keeping them from embarrassment or pure aesthetic error, or 2) The obligation to be kind to a person we have a relationship with, and 'lie' to them?

There are many factors that might be considered here: How well do you know the person? How will they respond? Is it vital to take cultural expectations seriously? Is there really an imperative to always tell the truth? These are, of course, not simple questions. But I submit that quite often, we do not really consider these questions, precisely because of the complications involved.

Rather, we - for reasons of ease, simplicity, and 'politeness', simply go with the path of least resistance and do what will be the least painful in the situation. By least painful I mean that we do what we think will be the best thing to do that both protects the other person, and protects our obligations. If this is a fair assessment, then I ask: Is this a good way to act? Is it ethically defensible? Or is it misguided? I am wondering...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sleeping At Last - "Naive"

Just heard this album for the first time, and these lyrics are amazing (especially in the wake of the recent priest abuse fiasco):


Religion is a breeding ground
Where the Devil's work is deeply found,
With teeth as sharp as cathedral spires
Slowly sinking in.

God knows that I've been naive
But I think it makes him proud of me.
Now it's so hard to separate
My disappointments from his name.

Because shadows stretch behind the truth
Where stained glass offers broken clues,
And fear ties knots and pulls them tight.
It leaves us paralyzed.

But in the end such tired words will rest.
The truth will reroute the narrow things they've said.
The marionette strings will lower and untie,
And out of the ashes, love will be realized.

God knows that we've been naive
And a bit nearsighted to say the least.
It's broken glass at children's feet
That gets swept aside unexpectedly...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

One writer's take on health care...

Here is a very interesting recent article from The Atlantic magazine on the American health care system. Worth reading... even if you don't agree with all the author's points.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ellul, American Propaganda, and Tea Parties...

Jacques Ellul wrote "Propaganda" 45 years ago. In the book he articulates a theory about the development of a modern system of propaganda that is designed to enable societies to progress toward certain aims (political, technological, etc). In one section he describes 'sociological propaganda' in the U.S. Here is a very interesting excerpt:

"Another very curious and recent phenomenon (confirmed by several American sociologists) is the appearance of 'agitators' alongside politicians and political propagandists. The pure agitator, who stirs public opinion in a 'disinterested' fashion, functions as a nationalist. He does not appeal to a doctrine or principle, nor does he propose specific reforms. He is the 'true' prophet of the American Way of Life. Usually he is against the New Deal and for laissez-faire liberalism; against plutocrats, internationalists, and socialists - bankers and communists alike are the 'hateful other party in spite of which well-informed "I" survive...'

The agitator is especially active in the most unorganized groups of the United States. He uses the anxiety psychoses of the lower middle class, the neo-proletarian, the immigrant, the demobilized soldier - people who are not yet integrated into American society or who have not yet adopted ready-made habits and ideas... He makes groups act in the illogical yet coherent, Manichaean universe of propaganda, of which we will have more to say. The most remarkable thing about this phenomenon is that these agitators do not work for a political party; it is not clear which interests they serve... but they deeply influence American public opinion, and their influence may crystallize suddenly in unexpected forms."

Now, I have no doubt this sort of 'agitation', if it is genuine, occurs across the political spectrum. But, doesn't this sound a lot like the current explosion of "tea parties" that are taking place in the U.S.? Groups of people are coming together for a common cause that is nonetheless vague: They want to get rid of Obama, or his policies, or "liberalism"; they want "freedom" or "less government" or any number of things. Many of them claim to be neither republicans nor democrats, but independents. And what they desire isn't necessarily bad, but seems to be primarily a reactionary movement held together by the sorts of elements described above by Ellul.

What do you think? Is Ellul's description valid here? Does it still apply today? Have we become, in our age of ubiquitous media pundits and disaffected voters, a nation of 'agitators'?

Friday, April 9, 2010

a quote regarding the philosophical method...

This is always important to remember if one is going to think clearly and carefully:

"When nonsense is spoken or written, or when something just seems fishy, we can sniff it out. The road out of confusion can be a long and difficult one, hence the need for constant attention to detail and particular examples rather than generalizations, which tend to be vague and therefore potentially misleading. The slower the route, the surer the safety at the end of it. That is why Wittgenstein said that in philosophy the winner is the one who finishes last."

Of course, balancing this wisdom against the necessary risk of truly living, especially living in faith - which requires that infamous 'leap', is the great challenge we all face!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A gentle reminder from my devotional for today...

I like this:

"At times God pours out blessings on us. Mostly though, God's blessings are like gentle rain - sometimes coming so quietly that I don't even recognize them. It's not until I see the results of those blessings that I acknowledge how God has provided for me all the little things I need day by day."