a few words

Month: February, 2008

the promise of political salvation :: politics as religion

The other day, one of Barack Obama’s speeches lit-up all my “political messianism” warning lights.

In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

To be parsimonious, I’m pretty sure that I can refute that statement with two words: Manifest Destiny.

Whether or not you think there has ever been anything false about American hopes depends, more or less, on whether you are driving the covered wagon or lying in the ruts and reservations left behind. If you have not seen the speech/music video in which the line appears, you are in for a treat. Here is a political liturgy that tells us where power lies, and who we ought to become:

My main point, however, is to point to an excellent interview: Paul Kennedy speaking with John Gray on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Ideas. The program is available for download (scroll down to “Utopian Dreams”), and presents Gray’s argument that the “secular” politics of the last two centuries have co-opted religious devotion and eschatological expectation in grand narratives that order human life in the present. He is speaking as much about neo-conservative agendas for the triumph of democracy as the Marxist end-times revolution. Politics is at its best, he insists, when it aims toward the modest goal of helping folks get along. The program is well worth your listening.

editing :: to find my true voice

I began laughing when I realized what I was doing, so I thought I’d share the joke.

Because I am at the tail end of my thesis, I’ve been spending a lot of time editing lately. I am finding better ways of saying what I’ve already said and trying to find all the commas that migrate around my papers and plant themselves in the wrong places.

My favored method of editing is to read the paper out loud. I find that when I’m actually speaking the text, it becomes more plainly obvious where and when I’m not making any sense. This means that I spend protracted periods of time sitting in the apartment talking to myself.

The fact that I often slip into a British, or Scottish, Irish or Australian accent while I read to myself is not what got me laughing. I’ve always enjoyed picking up other accents. My folks used to get me to read the “World Briefs” section of the newspaper (that eighth of a page in American newspapers where they tell you about all the unimportant people in the world who don’t speak English) in the accents of all the countries represented. What actually got me laughing was when I realized why I was reading in an accent.

It is well known that North Americans perceive people with Commonwealth accents as being more intelligent than people with plain ol’ ‘merican accents (and some of them actually are!). I realized that I often began slipping into these accents precisely in those sections of the paper where I thought that the argument was getting a bit dodgy or unclear. Some gremlin deep in my subconscious figured that it might sound better if someone British were reading it. Sometimes the trick even works! By distancing myself from my own writing and putting it in someone else’s voice, I don’t have to feel as crummy about the vagueness or tediousness that plagues my writing.

Nothing profound, but perhaps it’s worth a chuckle.

on the dramatic catholicity of selves :: von Balthasar

“Within the drama of Christ, every human fate is deprivatized so that its personal range may extend to the whole universe, depending on how far it is prepared to cooperate in being inserted into the normative drama of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection. von balthasarNot only does this gather the unimaginable plurality of human destinies into a concrete, universal point of unity: it actually maintains their plurality within the unity, but as a function of this unity. This is the aim of an organic integration of all individual destinites in Christ (Eph 1:3-10), which is simultaneously the commissioning of the organic fullness of vocations and tasks by the organizing center (Eph 4:7-16).”

To von Balthasar’s succinct brilliance, I append a scrawling of my own, a rumination in a similar direction.

In Mary’s “Yes,” God’s Son inhabits the human condition. God bears human nature, not merely as one man, but as a whole. God takes up human self-hood, and thereafter, both self-hood as such and all the particular selves are secured in him. Identity, the unique expression of each self, rests on the Son’s assumption of self-hood and derives from it as a gift of abundance. Therein, it also finds its goal—the creature bearing its peculiar praise to God. God gives creatures their very lives, and in their fullest expression, the most natural form, those lives strain to echo God’s delight as praise. This is not heard as a monotone and hegemonic convergence upon a unison center, but as a great din of voices held together in the common theme of a great hymn.

God’s advent on a dark night in Bethlehem secures the value, the singularity, the meaningfulness, of every created life. Not because every created life thereby bears a commensurate measure of divinity, but because God himself—utterly incommensurate, unparalleled in significance, singular beyond measure—can cry from a rough crib and feed from a human breast. This scene secures the world as we know it as something other than an emanation of Absolute Being, or the incredibly complex Thought pouring forth from Divine Mind. Encountering God in the baby at Bethlehem and in the Galilean wanderer means that my self-hood and yours, and the very “this-ness” of all that is, is willed its independence by God.

Encountering God as the “other” in Jesus secures “other-ness” itself—and makes it a profound gift to creation. God values created identity and created freedom so much that he bears it himself, he inhabits it fully, and makes it real. Truly then, human beings are most themselves when they find their “selves” in the person of Jesus Christ. In that encounter, their identities are secured. In being baptized into Jesus’ death, I give myself up, offer myself wholesale—only to discover that in Christ my-self is oriented rightly, is made whole, and is made more peculiar than I could ever enact on my own. The dreary gray world that drives people to seek a spiritual escape divulges new dimensions and whole new spectrums of color when Jesus Christ is found within it. The conformity and exclusion brokered and reinforced by human knowledge of good and evil are overwhelmed in the Son’s life, and creatures are discovered anew.

Charles Taylor and John Locke on reason

“I have borrowed the term ‘self-responsibility’ from Husserl to describe something that Locke shares with Descartes and which touches on the essential opposition to authority of modern disengaged reason. What we are called upon to do by these writers, and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn’t genuine unless you develop it yourself:

‘For, I think, we may as rationally hope to see with other Mens Eyes, as to know by other Mens Understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of Truth and Reason, so much we possess of real and true Knowledge. The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains makes us not a jot more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opinatrety, whilst we give up our assent to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation… In the Sciences, every one has so much, as he really knows and comprehends: What he believes only, and takes upon trust are but shreads.'[1]

Plato, of course, says something analogous…. But what is different with the moderns is that the requirement to work it out oneself is more radical and exclusive, and tis in virtue of their very notion of reason.

Plato enjoins us to stand out against custom and ‘opinion’ in order to arrive at the truth. But the truth at which we arrive is a vision of the order of things. It is not absolutely excluded in principle that our best way of getting there might be to be guided by some authority–not, indeed, the corrupt and erroneous one of popular opinion, but by someone with wisdom. Once we have science [according to Plato], of course, we can dispense with guidance, but it might help us to come to this independent condition.”

I think that our first instinct is to apply this “scientific” mode of reasoning to religious questions—and it tends to strip religions down to bare and vague transcendence—which is about all that any of us can “work out for ourselves.” I’m more and more confident that this mode of reasoning itself needs to be questioned, not least because it is a “tradition” all its own. Taylor is proving immensely helpful in that project.

__________________
[1] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1:4:23.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 167-68.

living the questions :: an incoherent odyssey

The Adult Education Forum at my church has begun a journey through a video series entitled “Living the Questions.” My reaction to this morning’s video and discussion may hold out promise for a series of posts in the weeks to come, and I would hope to extend the conversation started in the Forum to an even larger group of people.

Living the QuestionsThe video began with a fellow quoting both John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre. Naively, I got excited, thinking that this series might provoke some serious dialogue about faith and tradition. The fellow comfortably seated on a desert rock quoted to us MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition: a socially embodied and temporally extended argument.

But from that point forward, the argument was one sided, more of a monologue, really. Furthermore, it proceeded in a direction that neither Milbank nor MacIntyre would have relished introducing.

The first speaker after the introduction was John Shelby Spong, and after him Marcus Borg, followed by Matthew Fox—and a host of folks known for pushing the Christian faith to become… well… something else (or die, in Spong’s estimation). I do recognize some value in bringing these voices into the church—Christians are likely in their day-to-day lives to meet doubts and aberrations stranger than those presented by this cast of characters—we should at least be conversant with these lines of thought. But this video should not be presented as an argument!—at least, not in the sense of a conversation. The makers need not have turned to fire-breathing fundamentalists to balance the views on offer—where were Hauerwas, Wright, Hart, Marty, Williams? Balance, apparently, was not one of the goals of the series. Nor, it would seem, is speaking of the substance of Christian faith.

The metaphor of “The Journey” provided the thematic center for this morning’s episode. Faith is not a destination, we were told, but is exploration, questioning, wrestling, struggling. The one thing that remained certain throughout the presentation is that certainty is the enemy of authentic faith. We need to be willing to “not-know” more and to forsake the albatross of unpleasant beliefs. A few stanzas of the “poem” that came as supplementary material to the video will make this clear:

What would happen if I pursued God—
If I filled my pockets with openness,
Grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude,
And crawled into the cave of the Almighty
Nose first, eyes peeled, heart hesitantly following
Until I was face to face
With the raw, pulsing beat of Mystery?

What if I entered and it looked different
Than enyone ever described?
What if the cave was too large to be fully known,
Far too extensive to be comprehended by one person or group,
Too vast for one dogma or doctrine?

I risk taking the posture of moral indignation here, and I want to avoid it. But I left today’s Forum disheartened and sad—disappointed that our catechesis has come to giving a soapbox to figures who would like to kick out the pillars of the church’s historic faith. We are not in the fortunate position of being so literate in tradition that a few weeks spent teaching on the sacraments, or on the church’s teaching about wealth would come across as old-hat.

There is an oppressive insistence on journeying, and an oppressive privileging of “the journey” that robs people of the genuine hope that the tradition offers. Forcing everyone to reinvent the wheel and find the spiritual answers “for themselves” is not mercy, nor love—it’s modernism. The single mother of three children, who works two jobs to keep a family’s bodies and souls together is ill served by being cast out into the seas of uncertainty to begin her “spiritual journey”—she needs well-trained leaders who can teach her well, and aren’t afraid to do so.

When brothers and sisters are dying of cancer, are we being oppressively dogmatic in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and the hope of wholeness in salvation? When our culture lacks a moral center, is it really all that doctrinaire for the church to point to discipleship as a coherent life?

How far can the church undermine its own proclamation and remain the church? I find the sort of faith that this video was promulgating to be self-centered, vacuous, and ultimately parasitic. Etymologically the word “tradition” is connected to the task of “handing down” what is received from one’s elders. If we are genuinely to conceive of faith as a great personal journey of exploration that may lead us, as it has led Spong, Borg, and Fox, to liberate ourselves of faith in Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and singularity, then what will be left to hand down? Are we, as Dawkins would suggest, abusing our children by teaching them about the faith? We are certainly robbing them of part of their “journey” if we teach them as a “certainty” what they could have discovered on their own some forty years later.

There is some value to be found in the video that we watched this morning. There is a pietistic element in the encouragement toward a journey that encourages personal appropriation and asking difficult questions. Being fully present at church entails a level of engagement that does not take everything for granted. Awe, worship, and wonder all rest on a holy curiosity that presses in toward what is unknown. If this were all that was being said, I would be content to be exhorted from the likes of the characters mentioned above.

Furthermore, I have argued before that the “we” of the creeds (as in “we believe) is not hegemonic but inclusive. Where you or I have doubts, the church may sustain us in its faith; just as we may help to sustain others in their darker times. We profess faith boldly to one another, sometimes beyond our own ken. There is indeed flexibility and room for “journey” within the church’s proclamation. Nevertheless, we continue to profess and proclaim. Faith does not exclude doubt, but it does ask doubt to listen peaceably.

“Living the questions,” however, all too quickly becomes a spiritual navel-gazing that neglects the people God loves. “Living the questions” can become a way to put faith in one’s own journey, rather than in Jesus Christ. Borg spoke metaphorically about walking the Labyrinth: “there is no way to get lost in the labyrinth, even though it is not a direct path.” Unfortunately, that is a difference between labyrinths and real life. Out here, it is possible to get terribly lost, and terribly confused, and to inflict terrible injury on others in the process. When my faith is placed in my own abilities, or in my own journey, then I am left terribly alone, and terribly unaccountable.

Honestly, if I genuinely thought that it was all about “my journey,” I wouldn’t be at church. The coffee is not that good. I can meet interesting and provocative people elsewhere. I can find a decent jello-casserole recipe online. This video only reinforces the message that the mainstream culture sends undulating in our direction with ceaseless pressure. “What do you want? How do you feel? Where do you feel good? Go there! Be that! Choose for yourself! Choose, choose, choose.” This isn’t Mystery; it’s capitalism. Nor is it the solution to the spiritual bankruptcy of fundamentalism; it’s merely the antithesis. Churches that want to prosper under the banner of this mantra are forced to pander to the culture’s whims. Frankly, Lutherans will never be that hip—and when I’ve seen them trying, it has been nothing short of painful.

Rather than searching for therapeutic value in the cross, we ought to return to our roots (maybe even deeper than Luther!), and teach the vibrant and dynamic tradition that we have allowed to turn stale while we blithely looked for something more interesting. Moreover, we should come again to Jesus, whose mystery stretches beyond any of our efforts to summarize, encapsulate, and formulate. Let us carry our questions to the cross, perhaps then we will discover which of them were worth asking in the first place.

Bonhoeffer blog conference

Halden announced yesterday the beginning of what is sure to become a long and illustrious tradition—a Bonhoeffer blog conference. The profundity of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics lies in its insistence on pushing theological meditations toward the most concrete expression possible. Unlike many, his drive toward concreteness was not the result of an insipid focus on the “practical,” falsely contrasted to the abstract and theoretical; rather, he saw that proper theological work underlay the faith that leads to action. He is a tremendously attractive figure to so many of us because we have a sense that his life held together with a unity and integrity that most of us only strive to imagine.

In the last couple of years we have witnessed a substantial rise in collaborative theological scholarship via the blogosphere.  The recurring Karl Barth Blog Conference promises to be an excellent staple among theo-bloggers, as does the forthcoming Balthasar Blog Conference.  In the spirit of fostering further substantial theological scholarship in the blogosphere, I am happy to Bonhoefferannounce the First Annual Bonhoeffer Blog Conference.  The topic for this conference will be: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Contemporary Theology.  The aim of this conference is to foster sustained reflections on Bonhoeffer’s last major theological work, Ethicsand to explore its implications within contemporary theological, ecclesial, and political contexts.  While some spots are already filled (which will be announced later), there is plenty of room for submissions and proposals.  Any submission related to this general focus would be open to consideration.  Creative approaches to the work of Bonhoeffer is encouraged.

This conference will likely take place in early November, 2008.  Submissions can be emailed to Halden at halden-at-wipfandstock-dot-com.  Halden encourages you to promote this event on your own blog, if you are so inclined.

Bonhoeffer on moral philosophy (and the deconstruction thereof)

“Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

Creation and Fall, 27.