Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Laughter of Sarah...

from Tomas Halik's Night of the Confessor:

"The underlying mode of our faith, hope, and love is patience.  Only when we truly fall silent will we be able to hear once more the voice that says to us: Fear not.  I have conquered the world.  I am the resurrection and the life.  I am with you always, until the end of the age.

Fine words, but empty promises?  From behind the tent awning--and from deep within ourselves--comes Sarah's skeptical laugh.  How could that be possible, seeing that we are not only adult already, but also too old for great expectations?

'Why did Sarah laugh?'  Doesn't she realize that there is 'nothing too marvelous' for the Lord to accomplish?  And Sarah lies, because she is afraid.  Her laughter was also an expression of her fear of trusting.  'Yes, you did laugh,' the Lord insisted.

You did laugh, the Lord tells us.  But maybe He'll treat us the way He did our mother Sarah.  Maybe our nervous laughter of skepticism and mistrust will be transformed into the happy laughter of those who have lived to see the fulfillment of His promises."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Season of Advent...

It's been said many times over the past several days, but there is a very difficult tension at work in the recognition that we, as Christians, celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, as the ultimate gift of grace, while also recognizing the immense suffering and evil that exists in our world, most recently made manifest in the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in CT.

I'll try not to repeat what others have said, and I don't want to offer any platitudes or easy answers.  But I do think that it is precisely this tension between grace and suffering (and let's be honest, people all over the world feel this, often much more often than we do in America, where we have so many material blessings and a great deal of security) which ought to remind us of the inextricable link between Christmas and Easter.

I don't just mean that they are both ancient pagan holidays that Christians co-opted for their own religious calendar.  I mean that you can't really understand the beauty of Christmas without Easter, and vice versa.  Which means that we can't really see the fullness of the gift of joy that God provides without also recognizing the extent of the suffering and evil that we face in the world.  Easter, after all, is a celebration of resurrection.  But it is preceded by two days in which we acknowledge death and its inevitability in the world of all created things.  It's a tension that apparently God Himself couldn't avoid, in that sense.

I don't know exactly what it means for God's essence and character that both Christmas and Easter must take place.  I don't know why we have to have birth, suffering, joy, death, and resurrection all together in the package of our existence.  But I have to believe in the hope that God's final word is resurrection.  Otherwise we are simply resigned to death.  And that doesn't seem to be a situation that leads to hope at all.  What's worth hoping for if death always has the last word?  I hope for resurrection!  If we're gonna be accused of 'wish fulfillment', let's at least wish big! ;-)

That said, I hope we all take time to remember the pain that is all around us during this Advent season, and that we step out and into the lives of others as agents of joy and resurrection, never forgetting the tension that we face in so doing, but trusting in the hope of Christ's incarnation.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Michel Serres on philosophers...

"It is the function of the philosopher, the care and passion of the philosopher, to protect to the utmost the possible, he tends the possible like a small child, he broods over it like a newborn babe, he is the guardian of the seed.  The philosopher is the shepherd who tends the mixed flock of possibles on the highlands, heavy ewes and shuddering bulls, the philosopher is a gardener, he crosses and multiplies varieties, he safeguards the vastness of the old-growth forest, he is on the watch for the inclemency of the elements, a carrier of new seasons of history and of duration, fat cows and lean cows, the philosopher is the shepherd of multiplicities.

The philosopher... protects neither essence nor truth.  It is the function of the politician to be right and rational, it is the function of the scientist to be right and rational; there are plenty of functionaries of the truth as it is, without adding more.  The philosopher does not wrap himself up in truth as in breastplate or shield, he does not sing nor does he pray to allay nocturnal fears, he wants to let the possibles roam free.  Hope is in these margins, and freedom."

Michel Serres - "Genesis"

Friday, November 16, 2012

"The fool has said in his heart..."

At the risk of alienating everyone :-), I'm going to make what seems to me a statement of obvious truth:

It is neither unreasonable nor foolish to believe in God, AND it is neither unreasonable nor foolish to be skeptical about God's existence.

On the face of it, this perhaps seems like a contradictory statement.  How can it be reasonable both to believe in God and to be skeptical of God's existence?  Well, I don't want to get onto a rabbit trail right off the bat, but it all depends on how one defines 'reasonable'.  And I am not defining that word in purely rational terms; in other words, I don't equate 'reasonable' with 'Reason'.  Something can be perfectly reasonable even if it doesn't fit neatly into a logical equation or a statement of fact.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cottingham on Trust...

I've been reading a lot of Hegel lately, as I continue work on my dissertation.  But Hegel hasn't inspired me to post anything on this blog yet (assuming I even understand what he's saying!). Rather, here is a quote from another book I'm reading, "The Spiritual Dimension" by John Cottingham. I like this one, and it's fairly straightforward. :-)

"The unavoidable nature of our human predicament is that we can only learn through a certain degree of receptivity, by to some extent letting go, by reaching out in trust. This, after all, is how we began to learn anything as children, and this, though we may struggle to resist it, is how we have to be, as adults, if we are to continue growing towards the knowledge and love that are the most precious of human goods. The necessary trust, sadly, may be abused, for there are no guarantees. Just as the individual moral development of a child may go astray, as a result of trust given to those who promised love but delivered only selfishness, so in any other sphere (including that of organized religion) one will find many cases where trust is misplaced. But the primacy of praxis is in some sense a feature of the whole human condition: we learn to be virtuous, said Aristotle, by being trained in virtuous action before we reach the age of rational reflection. We learn how to grow morally by being immersed in a community before we fully understand what morality means. And we learn to trust by trusting. But in human life, there is no other way."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

With fear and trepidation...

I offer up the first 'demos' of some songs being recorded for the album I'm releasing sometime later this year.  (Or early next year.  Can't rush perfection... haha.  Actually, I'm just so busy with other things that I don't know how quickly I can finish recording.)  Lots to do still, but here is an idea of what to expect.  Feedback appreciated, and the songs are free for the taking.  But, if you'd like to support the recording process, you can donate a bit of cash to the cause.  Thanks for indulging my attempts to be creative! :-)

or, if you prefer:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two posts in two days?!

Well, sort of. :-) I noticed this article on a friend's Facebook page and decided it is worth re-posting. I am not a proponent of 'moral realism', and this article outlines one of the reasons why:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kierkegaard on Christian 'primitivity'...

"I could really be tempted to think that providence permits the scholarly, exegetical, and critical skepticism to get such a strong upper hand because providence is tired of the hypocrisy and all the mimicking which is carried on with the historical and historical proof and it wants to force men out into primitivity again. For primitivity, being obliged to be primitive, alone with God, without having others up front whom one mimics and appeals to—this men do not want at all. And with each century the historical millions and millions grow more and more numerous, and men also become more and more spiritless. Therefore it has pleased God that the critics who are degrading Christianity also get more and more power with the centuries."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It's been too long...

Well, look at that, it's been over a month since I've posted anything new.  That's just not right.  I do have good excuses though -- I was teaching this summer, and then immediately began working on a paper (as previously mentioned) which I presented at the International Kierkegaard Conference in Copenhagen.  Returned from the conference to immediately pack up my things and move into my new accommodations at Wycliffe Hall, where I am now a Junior Dean for SCIO (Scholarship and Christianity In Oxford), a Scholar's Semester in Oxford programme that brings undergraduate students from North America to study at the university.  So far it's been great -- but also understandably busy, as I've been helping the students get settled in their new environment.  In any case, this blog has been somewhat neglected.  So, to get things rolling again, here is a provocative bit from a book by Mark Vernon (Religion, Science, and the Meaning of Life) which, although written by a professed agnostic, offers some valuable insight for Christian believers:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Just a quick word...

Still busy, as usual. :-)  So, it looks like I should have some rough mixes of a few acoustic "indie/folk" songs I've recorded recently.  I'll be putting those up on for people to check out, and download on a 'pay what you want' basis.  Hopefully I'll have a full album to release by the end of the year, if not sooner.  So, watch this space for more info!

In the meantime, I'd highly recommend a couple other recent pieces of musical brilliance: the new albums from Anathema, mewithoutYou, and If These Trees Could Talk.  All different styles, but all three are great rock bands.  Oh, and if you haven't heard the side project from Derri Daugherty of The Choir and Michael Roe of the 77's, check out Kerosene Halo.  Wonderful mellow alt-country kinda stuff.

Ok, that's all for now!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Busy summer...

So, I've gotten busy with a variety of projects this summer... First, I'm teaching again for a couple of different summer school program/mes (choose your spelling depending upon location ;-D), and that's been great both for experience and $$.  Also, I finished recording some new music a couple weeks ago, which I will soon (hopefully) be making available for the world -- or at least the few people who are interested -- to hear.  I am working, slowly, on a paper that I will be presenting at the 2012 Soren Kierkegaard Conference in Copenhagen... that happens from August 21-24, so I've got to finish that!

But, at the moment, I also have to finish an article for the Kierkegaard Resources series.  I had been delaying that to work on other things.  But I received an email saying that the publisher wants to get things rolling, so I have to get it done in the next few days!  So... all that to say, I'm feeling a bit busy right about now!  All good things, of course, but it does mean I don't have time to do things like update this blog regularly.  Not that I've been doing a good job of that, anyway.  But, I like making excuses. ;-)  hehe.  Ok, back to work!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Eberhard Jüngel on Theological Conceptions of Actuality and Possibility...

This is great stuff:

"The future actuality of the world is not a matter of hope; it is made.  It belongs to the context of worldly action; it is a matter of calculation and cannot do with hopes any more than we can work with hope in constructing an aeroplane or in pursuing historical-critical inquiry into the past.  The future actuality of the world is something which can be made.  As such it does not originate immediately from the word of promise, but from the work of the diviner, who, according to Kant, truly represents 'things imminent in future time', if he 'himself creates and continues the events which he announces in advance'...

What can be made does not become, in the strict sense of 'becoming ex nihilo'.  We make actuality out of that which is actual.  We change, we transform.  In this way, we make the future.  God, however, is not one who transforms; he is the creator, who allows possibility to move toward actuality.  But this possibility arises from the divine distinction between the possible and the impossible, arises, that is, ex nihilo.  The world's possibility is not within but external to its actuality.  And its being is external to its futurity."

Eberhard Jüngel - "The World as Possibility and Actuality" (from his Theological Essays)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Kierkegaard on predicative being...

Wow, this is a deep bit of writing:

"Jehovah says: I am who I am; I am. This is the supreme being. But to be in this way is too exalted for us human beings, much too earnest. Therefore we must try to become something; to be something is easier. Roguish, as everything related to humanity is, we express it in this way: earnestness is to be something.

Most men, or at least almost everyone, would die of anxiety about himself if his being should be—a tautology; they are more anxious about this kind of being and about themselves than about seeing themselves. So their situation is mitigated. The alleviation might be, for example: I am Chancellor, Knight of Denmark, member of the Cavalry Purchasing Commission, Alderman, Director of the Club. In a deeper sense all this is—diversion.

But, to repeat, man is probably not able to bear true earnestness. What I am inveighing against is merely this lying, this making diversion into earnestness. And yet perhaps I am wrong here, too; for generally men would never be able to last it out if they weren't permitted to live in the illusion that this is earnestness; they would die of anxiety about life and about themselves at the mere thought that their earnestness is diversion, without, however, being deprived of this diversion.

But no doubt all these numerous predicates are actually diversions, distractions, which prevent a man from the deepest impression of this to be. And how infinitely far men now are from being able to bear the actual impression of earnestness is best seen from the fact that they have even made this predicative being into—Christianity."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kierkegaard on spiritual trials...

Since I don't really have much of interest to say these days, I'll turn to what someone else has said much better than I can -- of course, that means I'm going to quote from Kierkegaard... who else? ;-)  I've been pondering this section from "For Self-Examination" recently:

"Truly, rest assured that anyone who comes down these paths shouting with joy has not been called.  There is not one of those called who has not preferred to be exempted, not one who, as a child begs and pleads to be let off, has not pleaded for himself, but it does not help -- he must go on...

When the terror rises up, the person who is not called becomes so alarmed that he turns and runs.  But the one who is called -- ah, my friend, he would rather turn back, shuddering before the terror, but as soon as he turns to flee he sees -- he sees an even greater horror behind him, the horror of spiritual trial, and he must go forward...

Everything that closely or remotely belongs to the given actuality arms itself against this man of spiritual trial whom it nevertheless is impossible to terrify because, strangely enough, he is so afraid -- of God.  All attack him, hate him, curse him.  The few who are loyal to him cry out, 'Be careful!  You are making yourself and everybody else unhappy.  Stop now and do not make the terror more intense.  Check the words on your lips and recant what you have just said.'  O my listener, faith is a restless thing."

While I suppose that some would merely perceive here an account of the psychological turmoil associated with religious belief, there is something about Kierkegaard's description that seems to contain a very important truth, though I'm not sure how to express it.  What I want to say is something like this:

Faith is found in the individual's decision to follow God above all else, and this decision cannot help but create a kind of fear or terror in a person.  But it is a terror that must be faced, because one is convinced that it will be an even worse thing to turn away from God.  Nevertheless, there is a severe trial that takes place in every genuine expression of faith, because the person must hold together three things: 1) A belief that God is to be followed, even at the expense of everything else. 2) A recognition that this will not make sense to anyone else, unless they have gone through the same experience (and how can anyone be sure of that?).  3) The recognition that there is no way to ascertain whether one has made the right decision or not, at least not in our current human state.

Given this situation, faith should be a thing taken most seriously, and with full recognition of its difficulties and its offensive status vis-a-vis standard modern/postmodern human conceptions of knowledge and reality.  This is why I, like Kierkegaard, am always a bit suspicious of people who make their claims to faith quickly and easily.  I suspect that they likely haven't really dealt with faith on a very significant level.  Why?  Because, as Kierkegaard says, "faith is a restless thing."  Faith cannot be domesticated, and any attempt to do so may just lead to its disappearance.  And nothing is worse than to think you have faith when you don't.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A few more thoughts on the Bible...

I've written on this topic before, but this week a friend of mine asked me to give a quick explanation of my basic views on the inspiration and interpretation of Scripture.  Clearly, this is not the kind of thing that can be fully explained in a single blog entry (or even a series!), but I want to post these thoughts here and see what kind of feedback I get.  So, here goes:

Like many evangelical Christians, I grew up simply believing that the Bible was the book of Truth (with a capital 'T') given to us by God.  I never really questioned it much, even in college, and post-college, when I prided myself on being a bit more 'avant garde' than the average Christian, primarily because of the music I listened to. (Rather foolish, I know, but aren't we all a bit foolish in our early 20's?)

Anyway, to make a long story short, I pretty much accepted the Bible at face value, without really thinking very deeply about what was going on behind the scenes, so to speak.  Sure, there were lots of debates over interpretation, but these were mostly 'in-house' debates having to do with what specific verses did or didn't say about things like rock music, tattoos, and drinking alcohol.  I have no doubt that many Christians are still living in this paradigm.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mooney on faith...

"Faith means taking the things of the world in a certain manner.  In contrast to stoicism, it means taking them as blessed, just as Job blesses the Lord who gives and takes.  But how can a man as afflicted as Job is, nevertheless affirm the inexhaustible meaning of the particulars around him...?  Job's capacity to maintain a faithful vision is put on trial.  We can conceive this trial as a battle between two competing frames or visions for understanding suffering and affliction.  The battle takes place on many fronts, between Job and his friends; between Job and the Lord; within Job himself; and within us as we read this unsettling, inconvenient scripture..."

- Edward Mooney

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The threat of biblicism...

"The reason why a strict and narrowly understood biblicism is intrinsically impossible is that it does not take account of this situation, that is to say, of the essential historicity of proclamation and theology.  Such biblicism supposes that the only suitable method of proclamation and theology would be 'simply to hold fast to the language of the Bible.'  I do not wish to deny that such a requirement attempts to give expression, in an unreflective way, to a desire which must altogether be affirmed.  If, however, we are seeking clarity in our method, our efforts are threatened by biblicism as a principle because it limits itself essentially to the language of the Bible and fundamentally ignores the historicity of proclamation and theology.  Biblicism in this sense poses the most serious kind of threat..." (Gerhard Ebeling, "The Problem of Historicity")

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

the frailty of the body...

Is anyone else like me, a bit put off (and embarrassed to admit it) by all the trendy theological talk of 'incarnating' ministry and 'lived' theology and the 'earthiness' of the Christian life?  I mean, I know that Christ was fully human, and that we ought to value our humanity as something good, created by God... and I get that the result of being a follower of Christ who thinks this way ought to be that we reach out in love to other human beings, in the midst of their humanity.  This is all a wonderful expression of our faith.

But, I gotta say, there's also a big part of me that still thinks there's something really valuable in the view that this world is not our home, and there awaits something much better after this life is over.  I mean, maybe it's just an immaturity on my part, but the idea of not having to live in this frail body, with all of its limitations, is extremely appealing.  Perhaps if I had a really "successful" life, and was an amazing physical specimen, I'd feel differently.  But, I suspect that there are very few people who are really content with this human life, if the truth be told.

I mean, imagine what it would be like to never have to deal with the physical and mental limitations we have to put up with in this life.  Imagine, no allergies of any kind!  hehe... a silly example, I suppose, but it's just to make the point that I think most of us get used to living lives that are far less than what we really want, but we convince ourselves that our lives 'aren't that bad', because the alternative is being depressed about it.  Of course, in comparison to many people, my life isn't that bad, and I know the scriptures say we should rejoice in all things.  Still, life could be a LOT better.  Doesn't everyone think that, deep down?

I guess my little rant here is just to say, in the midst of sharing life, and being loving to others, and learning to bring hope and healing to the world, I hope Christians aren't forgetting that the primary revelation of Christianity is still precisely that there is a new life, a life beyond death, and a new world, that we believe somehow exists.  And, earthiness and language of incarnation aside, I am really hoping for that.  Because if all we have to look forward to is a world similar to this one, just a little better due to human endeavors, that doesn't seem very appealing to me.  I wonder how to find balance between living for Christ in this life and looking forward to the afterlife.

Maybe you disagree?  Perhaps I'm just not seeing things the way I should?  Curious to hear the thoughts of others.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Culmination of a Scandal...

Easter is the day when Christians celebrate the decisive point of God's victorious action for the created world: the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is the central event of our faith, and the 'firstfruits', as Scripture explains, of what is to come, on the day when all creation will be reconciled to God.  How this happens, we don't really know, but, after all, we don't really understand how the resurrection happens either.  We simply trust that the resurrection of the dead is a reality, and that it finds its archetypal expression in Jesus' resurrection.

But Easter is also the culmination of a scandal - the scandal of Christ's passion, wherein he was betrayed, abandoned, tortured, and finally killed... all because human beings couldn't understand what God was, and is, trying to do.  And, it seems that things really aren't that different today.  Often, most people -- including we who call ourselves Christians -- really don't understand just what God is trying to do.  We develop all sorts of systems and patterns by which we attempt to figure things out, but at the end of the day, we are still left with a lot of uncertainty as to how the plan will actually unfold, and even as to what the plan actually is.

This is one reason why I love Easter: it reminds me that I don't have to know all the specifics of God's plan, or how it works.  What God asks of me is to place my faith in the hope of the resurrection.  It's a bizarre thing, to be sure, a belief that all death will be overcome through the victory over death of a Jewish man who lived 2,000 years ago, but it is also a source of immense transformative power.  For, after all, in a basic sense, that is the plan -- to see all of creation transformed from that which is slowly dying, and becoming chaotic, empty, and nothing, into that which is alive, restored, full of all that is true and good.

And this, I believe, is the answer to the question: 'What is God doing?'  God is, somehow, transforming reality from death to life -- even though death is unavoidable.  The hope of such transformation may seem wishful folly, but I am continuing to hope in it nonetheless, in part because it reminds me that I also have a part to play in the process of transformation.  I can bring the resurrection into people's lives each day.  I can treat other human beings (indeed, all of creation) as worthy of restoration and life, and I can impart hope, even if only in small ways, to the world.

It is not easy, and it is not always easy to believe that any transformation is taking place.  But on Easter, I am reminded of the hope that I profess, a hope that says new life is possible, and that it is available to everyone, and I can provide a taste of that life when I live as Jesus lived.  My prayer for this Easter, and every day of my life, is that I will be, by God's grace, able to share a glimpse of resurrection with everyone I meet.  Amen.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What Makes Christianity Distinctive?

A basic question, right?

I mean, we all hear (and say) that Christianity is different from other religions, and that Christians are supposed to be different from other people. It's on bumper stickers: "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion." It's even in the Bible: we are "a peculiar people," a people "set apart," we are "in the world, but not of it," etc. And, at one level, it is fairly simple--Christianity is the community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Christians believe several basic things which are unique to it: God is One, yet Three (Trinity); Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human; salvation and eternal life are found only in Jesus. And yet...

There are groups of people who call themselves Christians that don't agree with all (or any) of the above statements. Some would say that Christ is not necessarily the only way to eternal life, and yet they call themselves Christians. some would say that the doctrines of established faith are incorrect, and they they call themselves Christians. Of course, those Christians who hold to what is commonly called 'orthodoxy' would call these dissenters 'heretics', and that is fair enough, theologically. But, then, this simply leads one to ask: is that all there is to it? Is 'orthodoxy' what makes Christianity distinctive?

At this point, I think, the question becomes more complicated. After all, one might ask, who decides what 'orthodoxy' is? Is it the largest group? Is it the most consistent tradition (or is it traditions?) of the faith? Is it simply to be found in the Bible? Of course, all of these have merit, but there is still, it seems, an unanswered question here. After all, as many scholars have pointed out, the Bible says a lot of things, and some of them are not consistent--some are even contradictory (A recent worthwhile book on this topic is Christian Smith's "The Bible Made Impossible.").

So maybe it's the Bible, 'as interpreted by the tradition'. But this seems to fall short as well; after all, the history of Christianity involves an ever-increasing number of divergent traditions, many of which see the other traditions as 'not quite getting it right' when it comes to properly understanding Christianity. Thus we have Catholic/Orthodox/Coptic/Protestant/etc, and within each of those, multiple subdivisions, each of which claims to have found the most proper way to understand the faith. Whose interpretation of the Bible is the most accurate? Is it the group with the most members? The one with the longest history? The one currently growing the fastest?

Then, there is an even more potentially divisive question--the question of praxis, or how we should live our lives as believers. How much does genuine Christianity depend on living in a certain way? Here we find perhaps even more differences, and even more potential for confusion. Of course, often praxis is guided by theological assumptions (stemming from the Bible, usually), but that is not my main point here. The point is that there are so many divergent ways that Christians can choose to live their lives. Let me just mention a few. There are Christians who believe the right way to live is to be: politically conservative/liberal (or non-political!), rich/poor, immersed in culture/separate from culture, guided by reason/guided by emotion (or intuition), ethically strict/ethically relaxed, pacifist/warlike, exclusive/inclusive, etc.

Obviously, I'm creating strict dichotomies, and the reality of the situation is far more complex and less easy to categorize. Christians are often a mix of many different attitudes and beliefs, and I would guess that a lot of them (including myself) don't know what to think half the time! So, it seems to be the case that, whether we like it or not, there is a lot of inconsistency among Christians--perhaps more today than ever before--about what it is that we really are.

Why am I bringing all this up?  Well, I've had several conversations lately with fellow 'budding theologians' here at Oxford, and it seems we're all dealing with this issue in one way or another.  And, since as Christian theologians we (at least in theory!) are supposed to provide direction to 'Christianity' more generally, we feel a sense of responsibility to share what seems to be the most accurate presentation of the faith to people.  But I wonder whether it really matters, since it appears that most believers are more than happy to follow whatever 'Christianity' seems right to them, regardless of what anyone says, and there does not appear to be any sign of this changing.

So, how can the theologian, or church leader, or any Christian who desires to speak the 'truth' of the faith progress forward in this situation?  It is, I think, probably the most difficult and most important question facing Christianity today--what is it that makes us different?  And how can we effectively share this truth in a way that takes root in our lives, and the lives of others?  If we don't figure that out, then I suspect that we will continue to see more and more people grow weary of the faith and walk away.  I don't like that, but I think it's reality.

My suspicion is that we all need to start again, and keep returning every day, to the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and seriously examine the life, teachings, and passion of Jesus Christ.  If we can't learn how to be distinctive as Christians from that, then everything else seems of very little value.  So, maybe stop reading Paul for a while and just focus on what Jesus apparently really said.  This doesn't mean I think the rest of the Bible is worthless; not at all.  But perhaps it's time to get back to the 'milk' of things, because I'm not sure most of us are really ready to 'eat solid food', so to speak. (And, yes, I'm aware that is a paraphrase of something Paul said. ;-D)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I think I've figured out what it is that bothers me about the Kony 2012 campaign...

I wasn't going to write anything about the "Kony" video or Invisible Children, since so much has been said already -- just do a Google search for a plethora of information.  And, it's not that I disagree with the basic premise: clearly, bringing Kony to justice and helping the children who have been harmed and brainwashed by Kony are good things.  I won't  begrudge anyone who has signed on their support for such an endeavor.

Still, something about this whole situation has made me uneasy, and I wasn't sure what that could be, until today.  I think, now, I can say what bothers me about the campaign more clearly.  My primary concerns have little to do with the common accusations being tossed around ('they didn't think it through carefully enough', 'they aren't really spending their money wisely', 'this is just a superficial fix on a very complicated problem', etc).  Those may or may not prove to be true.  Yet, as has also been pointed out, at least they are trying to do something to help.

My actual concern stems from the 'media hype' mentality that such a campaign needs to thrive.  And that reflects a deeper concern: Why is it, exactly, that so much attention and response has been given to this issue, when there are many more serious (at least in sheer numbers of deaths) problems in the world that don't seem to register with people?  For example, it's a well-known fact that thousands of children die every day from hunger and treatable diseases.  It's something we all know, and yet it barely tends to register a blip on the 'social media outrage' meter from day to day.

I'm afraid to say that the answer is fairly simple: people quickly become desensitized to suffering, especially overwhelming suffering that isn't directly facing them.  I'm not blaming anyone for this.  I'm no better.  It seems to be just the way human beings deal with life.  But that bothers me.  It bothers me that most of us will see images and information at least several times a day detailing the vast amount of suffering in the world, but it barely registers.  It bothers me that, apparently, in order to get our attention, we need to be shocked into recognizing a problem.  Since the Kony situation is quite shocking, it gets our attention.

And, I think, that is what bothers me most about the situation: the fact that we need to be shocked into paying attention.  At first blush, that may not seem like such a big deal.  So we need to be shocked into paying attention once in a while, what's the problem?  We just have to find new and creative ways to shock people into paying attention.

But, I'm afraid, that will only exacerbate the problem.  Think about the first time you were shocked by some serious problem in the world.  Now think about how you view that problem several years on.  Very few of us, I'm afraid, maintain the same level of outrage or concern.  Those that do tend to become humanitarians and work directly with the people being affected by the issues.  Most of us do not.  This isn't meant as a guilt trip; it's simply the fact of the matter.  Unless we are committed to lifelong personal/vocational involvement, we will grow dissociated from what shocks us after a while.

The Kony 2012 campaign probably can't be replicated.  A Kony campaign every year would soon be tuned out by all but the most committed individuals.  And, if people get used to being shocked, then the effect simply won't be the same.  Now, hopefully it won't need to be repeated, if Kony is captured and brought to justice.  But what about all the other issues that face our world?

In the long run, if we fall into a pattern of 'shocking' people using social media, like the Kony 2012 video does, with causes that deserve immediate attention, what will happen to our desensitization?  Will it -- as seems likely -- simply grow?  This ultimately would be a very bad thing, I think.  Can such an increase in desensitization be avoided, given the ubiquity of social media, and the likelihood that those who, in the future, want to draw attention to an important issue, will use similar methods to Invisible Children?  Will we start tuning out Youtube videos the way we tune out Feed the Children commercials?

It seems to me that there should be a different way of getting people to pay attention and become involved in the sufferings of the world.  But, honestly, I'm not sure what that might be.  And that bothers me.  Perhaps someone out there in the blogosphere has some insight to share?  On the other hand, perhaps I am wrong, and people will not be so quickly desensitized to issues like the ones raised by Invisible Children.  I hope not.  But it still bothers me.  Should it?  What do you think?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Is there such a thing as "Christian" philanthropy?

This week I read an article in The Guardian newspaper. It was about the "new breed" of philanthropists, very wealthy people who are looking for ways to give away more of their money to those in need. I suppose that people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are largely responsible for this trend, and I certainly won't complain about that. I'm very thankful that there appear to be more rich people currently willing to give away their money to help the impoverished and oppressed peoples of the world.

But what struck me was a comment by one of these philanthropists, who said: "Tax... is compulsory. There's no joy in paying it. Philanthropy is about: This is my money, I can do what I like with it. It's people with surplus money wanting dreams, visions, opportunities. It's an identity question, what you feel your purpose in life is."

Now, of course, I agree that the joy that comes from helping others can be a powerful motivator, and that's fine, as far as it goes. But it occurred to me that this motivation stems from a basic assumption that is, at its core, in direct opposition to what Christianity seems to tell us. It is seen in the statement, "This is my money." Here we find an assumption that is at the core of most western worldviews today: that when I work for something, and achieve something, whatever I get is "mine."

But doesn't the Bible tell us otherwise? Doesn't Christ, especially, remind his followers again and again that all things belong to God, and that we own nothing? Doesn't he say that we shouldn't worry, because God will provide all of our needs? Doesn't he tell us that even our lives don't belong to us? Paul tells us that we ourselves have been "bought" at the price of Christ's death, so we belong to God. That would, implicitly, make everything that is "ours" actually God's.

But if this is the case, then how should Christians view something like philanthropy? How should we view our lives in general? Shouldn't we be giving away as much as possible, even if we aren't Warren Buffett? It seems that we run into a kind of cognitive dissonance here: surely, God doesn't expect us to give everything away. Yes, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had, but that was just rhetorical, right? Obviously, we can't live and feed ourselves if we have nothing at all. And what about our responsibility to our families?

I'm not trying to suggest that there's anything wrong with having things, or with caring for one's family; not at all. But I do think that we begin to get to the core of what Christianity is all about when we start thinking about the fact that, if I am a follower of Christ, what I have is, at the most basic level, NOT mine.

Which means that it is not up to me to do whatever I want with it. We hear this often in Christian circles--"the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it"--but I wonder what would happen if we actually lived as though this were true. What would it mean for philanthropy to be genuinely "Christian" in this sense? What would it be like if wealthy Christians gave away their money, or even their belongings, with the recognition that "this isn't mine, it's God's, so I would like to share it with you, since you need it."

What would it mean if I, as an Oxford doctoral student who has educational debt and a dissertation to write, were to think about everything I have, including my academic pursuits, as belonging to God, not to me? What would it be like if you, with your mortgage, and two cars, and wife, and two kids, and yearly vacation to wherever, were to live in the truth that none of that--house, wife, kids, even your own life--actually belonged to you?

Quite honestly, it scares me. I'm not sure I want to live that way. It means giving up too much control. It means a lack of security. And yet, apparently, that's what I'm called to do as a Christian. What do you think? Is this too much? Is it simply impossible? Are those good enough reasons for me to stop going on about it? Or does our unwillingness to really live that way reveal a deep rift in our Christian faith?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Podmore on Kierkegaard's infinite qualitative difference...

"Kierkegaard's writings express their own vitriolic offense toward any blurring of humanity and divinity that denies the infinite qualitative difference; and yet the (typically Kierkegaardian) irony is that the Christianity one finds in these writings is one which itself teaches that God has actually defied that very distance. This divine defiance... is identified as being an offense to reason in the highest degree: an offense that is at the dialectical heart of the struggle for faith. The essence of the Kierkegaardian offense toward Feuerbach, Hegel, paganism, Christendom, etc, is an offense directed toward every human denial of the infinite difference..." - Simon Podmore

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pattison on theological possibility...

"In a theological perspective, to say that God is creator is to say that he is the one who brings about both actuality and possibility. God, in other words — and no matter what problems this statement makes for developing a meaningful theological discourse — is prior to both actuality and possibility: each reflects only an aspect of the absolute, eschatological reality that God is, which, being eschatological, is not (yet) available to us as an object of knowledge. If the world determines the horizon of actuality within which alone human life can be lived, i.e., if it is the ground of everything that is or that can be, then the actuality of the world cannot itself be determinative for the absolute actuality of God which, in this sense, is a kind of actuality beyond actuality..."

(from God and Being by George Pattison.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A few basic philosophical assertions that I hold...

I take it to be the case that:

1) There are absolutes (epistemological, ethical, or otherwise) which can be believed to be true.

However, 2) these beliefs cannot be determined to be true by any rational, empirical, common-sense, or practical argument.

3) At best, we can only have pragmatically agreed upon beliefs, or beliefs which seem factually consistent enough to count as knowledge, or existentially grounded beliefs which supersede the means of analyzation mentioned above in 2.

Thus, 4) I am not a relativist. I can perhaps be called a skeptic, at least in epistemological terms. But I am not a relativist in any sense other than a weak form of cultural relativism, to which I assume everyone would adhere: different groups of people develop different views of the world, and it is not always clear which of those views is the most consistent and counts as knowledge.

However, 5) I would say that no human knowledge can be properly called 'Truth' (with a capital T), inasmuch as human beings are not in a position to make such claims, due to our limitations. This, however, does not impinge upon our ability to make statements about a great deal of the world, and what takes place in it, that count as knowledge, and are therefore called 'facts'.

But, 6) I would hesitate to say, as some philosophers do, that such a view is banal or unhelpful. I think that there is a great deal of importance and interest in recognizing our limitations —- epistemological and otherwise -— since it is only by clarifying our abilities and intentions as human beings that we can properly relate to the world. For how can one be certain that one is acting rationally, or ethically, if one has not taken into account one's own limitations and how that might impact the view one has of the world?

Finally, 7) it is within this recognition of human limitation that I believe a connection to the transcendent or supernatural may best be discovered. This is certainly not a proof, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it is only when we are most fully cognizant of what we do not know that we are also most open to that which supersedes knowledge. This is not a claim about how God may or may not interact with the world; it is a claim about a posture of human beings that is best suited to recognizing God.

Perhaps these are unsatisfactory assumptions... if you think that, keep in mind they are still being formulated. But I welcome your responses.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Thoughts on Jeff Keuss' "Freedom of the Self"

Jeff Keuss teaches at SPU and at the Fuller NW campus, and I was his TA for his Christian Ethics class a couple years ago. His book, "Freedom of the Self," came out in 2010 and I wrote some thoughts down after reading it. I haven't done anything with them yet, so I decided to post them here. Read on if interested in what is essentially a theological book review...

Keuss' book is a response to his impression that, like the account of the procrustean cropping of a Rembrandt painting with which he begins, theology is often guilty of "favoring doctrinal method and form that delimits and at times violates the very thing that theological method is hoping to adequately 'frame' and celebrate." (p. 2) Perceived as a corrective to one area of improper delimiting, Keuss' book "is concerned with the loss of the self amidst what is happening in the emergent and missional discussions." (p. 2) He believes this loss of the 'kenotic self' potentially undermines these otherwise valuable trajectories within contemporary Christianity. He wants to provide "a deep model for authentic personhood" that reflects "the full canvas of our humanity." (Ibid)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

more thoughts about hope...

I've been thinking about what it means to be hopeful.  We often hear, especially in Christian circles, about 'faith, hope, and love' but while faith and love get lots of attention, hope seems to be more often an undercurrent that is mentioned abstractly, but without knowing exactly where it fits or what to do with it.  We are told to keep hoping, or how important hope is, but what is it exactly?  I'm becoming more and more convinced that the order should be reversed (love, hope, faith) and that dialectical relationships (where all three influence and modify the others) are the best way to conceive these concepts.  But I won't get into all that here.

For now, I want to suggest that hope is intimately and necessarily related to possibility. Without possibility, there can be no hope.  What I mean is this: hope seems to entail that a person's existence might turn out differently.  If nothing can turn out differently, then there does not seem to be any reason for hope.  So, in a sense, we might say that as long as there is the possibility of genuine change (which I think most people would agree is the case), then there is the potential for hope.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

too funny not to re-post...

Here's a humorous, modified-for-2012 version of a quote by Pascal I recently discovered on the Faith and Theology blog:

"All of man's misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly without an iPad."

Addendum: Insert iPhone, Blackberry, or whatever else you want... the point is, many of us are losing the ability to simply enjoy our lives with simplicity.  I'm not against technology at all, but I do think it has profoundly affected - especially in the last 50 years or so - our levels of comfortability with ourselves as biological, spatio-temporally limited, finite, human beings.  Human beings are, it appears (at least in the Western 'first-world'), less content than ever with ourselves as humans.

In fact, given current thinking on transhumanism and post-humanism, bioethics, etc, I think a strong argument could be made that one of the primary uses of technology has become precisely the attempt to change, 'fix', or transcend ourselves as humans.  Essentially, humanity has, in many ways, become determined to use technology to overcome what we dislike about our human-ness.  In that sense, technology has become, for many, a very real religious force.

No wonder some young people are claiming that the internet is their religion.  I believe the quote is "humanity connected is God."  While I disagree with that statement theologically, the point here is simply this: given what we appear to be using technology to accomplish, I believe this quote may someday be nonsensical.

What I mean is this: if we get to the point where technology really becomes the means by which we are able to remove all of those aspects of our humanity that we dislike, it seems very difficult to determine whether or not what remains really is still 'humanity'.  So, if technology, including the internet, is slowly changing humanity into something else, something post-human, then it makes no sense to say that humanity connected is God, because there is no 'humanity' to connect.  Whatever is connecting at that point, it will be something else.

Some people, like Ray Kurzweil, seem to welcome that idea.  Me, I'm not so optimistic.  Obviously, it goes against my own theological beliefs.  But aside from that, it's hard for me to be excited about any trend that seems to anticipate the demise of my species.  I suppose there are arguments supporting such an idea, but I can't help wonder whether those who are excited about the idea of a post-human world are naively assuming that they will somehow have a role to play in that world.

Which, of course, is completely illogical.  There is no reason to think the post-human world will privilege computer technicians or quantum physicists over anyone else.  Humanity will have fulfilled its evolutionary role and will most likely become extinct, or will be used by higher species in a manner somewhat similar to the way we currently employ other animals.  Call me crazy, but that's not really a future I feel excited about.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

back in Oxford...

Well, it's a new year, and time to get focused on the research and writing again after a nice three-week break (although, as with most vacations, I need some time to recover from my break!).  So, I'm turning my attention again to focus on some articles I need to write, and begin to prepare myself for the next term, which will include in-depth readings of Aristotle's Metaphysics and Hegel's Science of Logic.  Yikes! :-)  I hope to blog more regularly this year, and I will probably be including a lot of ruminations on what I'm reading, so stay tuned for more philosophical ramblings in 2012...