a few words

Month: March, 2008

philosopher for president :: Kierkegaard

Finally, someone I can vote for without despairing over my lack of infinitude!

how did God create himself :: Connor’s question

The previous post introduced a question about God from Connor, I’ve since learned that Connor is only five years old.

My instincts were similar to Matt and Grace; that is, to give Connor an answer that will lead him toward years of fresh and different questions in the same vein. So here is the answer I offered.

The Father loves the Son so much that he gives the Son his life; the Son loves the Spirit so much that he gives his life for the Spirit; the Spirit loves the Father so much that he gives his life for the Father. God’s love is so big that everything that God creates, including time, fits inside—and God loves you!

I cheated and used two sentences; but I did write both of them using a green marker!

The fun and challenging part about Connor’s question is that there is no simple answer that will satisfy the question’s underlying motive. Connor understands that speaking of an unmoved Mover begs the question as to whether the infinite regress can “really” end, or whether there is something “beyond” even this unmoved character. The question cannot be answered from within the framework that it is asked, because there will always be one more question searching for the real foundation.

Connor also seems to have a budding trinitarian instinct! He is not asking, “Who created God?” but “How does God create himself?” He seems to know that inquiring about God’s beginning will be a fruitful endeavor only if it receives an answer from within God’s own life. Whether or not he intended to do so, Connor brushes aside the singular, unchangeable, utterly removed, and utterly simple Hellenic notion of Deity. Connor’s questions begins to hint at self-differentiation within God because the notion of Someone without an external beginning is boggling. This is a wonderful question! Both Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson make similar arguments, so Connor is in good company.

Through the self-revelation of the Trinity, we can speak of a logical beginning for God even though we cannot speak of a temporal beginning. God, from all eternity is found in the Father’s begetting of the Son in love, in the Father’s sending of the Spirit, and in the Son’s reflection of the Father’s Spirit of Love back to the Father. Of course, the story of those relationships cannot be said to have “begun.” Never have the begetting, sending, and loving obedience of the three persons ceased or started (from a temporal perspective). Yet, from a relational (or a logical) perspective, it makes sense to speak of God this way because of what God himself has shown us. The Son and the Spirit testify, in the midst of our history, to their relationships with the Father and with one another.

I remember puzzling over questions like Connor’s when I was a young kid. In the years since I’ve learned that they can be framed in philosophical terms and turned into three-hundred pages of dense technical writing, but it is truly remarkable how the questions themselves don’t change all that much. Children are in touch with the deepest mysteries, paradoxes, and tensions in our worldview, even if they don’t have all the “right” words for their questions, and even if they remain unasked. I for one, am thankful!

an assignment :: one sentence

The pastor of our church handed me a quarter-sheet of paper on Sunday, adorned with red and blue markers. Above a drawing of Jesus on the cross, in excellent seven year old penmanship are the words: 

Dear Pastor, 
How did God create Himself?
From Connor

Being wise, my pastor outsourced his answer to me. Being less than wise, I accepted the challenge. I’ve decided that the only appropriate answer is one written in large block letters with a marker. So how would you answer Connor’s question in one sentence? 

ad radicem :: a new project

The church that Carolyn and I attend has asked me to start an outreach program for young professionals in the neighborhoods around the New York State capital. Rather than going door to door, I’m putting together a theology discussion/Bible study at a local Mexican food restaurant. For those people who are allergic to churches, discussing faith over cerveza and tacos should ease some of the negative ecclesial vibes they may feel. At any rate, I’ve started up another blog as a simple way of getting some information out over the internet for people whose curiosity is piqued by our fliers.

You are welcome to look it over and let me know what you think. Click here.  

reasonable religion :: Charles Taylor on history and faith

In a chapter of Sources of the Self devoted to articulating the Deist’s vision of human identity and moral sources, Charles Taylor offers the following on the relation between faith, reason, and history. To read the passage in context it is necessary to understand that Taylor doesn’t advocate the position he articulates in the second half of the paragraph.

“So the paramountcy of order [in creation, from the Deist’s perspective] excludes miraculous interventions. But it also marginalizes history. The ‘historical’ nature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam—that is, the fact that allegiance and piety are focused on key historical events: Sinai, the Incarnation, the giving of the Quran—is intrinsically connected with their recognition of the extra dimension. These events are the eruptions of God’s affirming power in human life, and its continued force in our lives requires that we maintain unbroken continuity with these moments through tradition. Once the notion of order becomes paramount, it makes no more sense to give them a crucial status in religious life. It becomes an embarrassment to religion that it should be bound to belief in particular events which divide one group from another and are in any case open to cavil. The great truths of religion are all universal. Reason extracts these from the general course of things. A gap separates these realities of universal import from the particulate facts of history. These latter cannot support the former. ‘Contingent historical truths can never serve as proof for necessary truths of reason,’ as Lessing put it.” [1]

The very concept of “religion,” in its contemporary construal, contributes to the embarrassment about historicity. Religion is taken to be a general category, of which Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Hinduism are all concrete examples. Similarities between these faiths justify classifying them together under one general concept. They all share things like: belief in what remains invisible, an account of the meaning of human existence, and concern for symbols, rites, and liturgies. Accustomed to ordering and classifying other particulars, sloths (both two-toed, and three-toed) or salamanders for instance, human reason turns its attention toward religious behaviors and beliefs, extracts their similarities and sets forth a category, “religion,” that holds them all.

Thinking about “religion” in this general way influences the way in which common sense approaches religious questions. The temptation offered by the concept of “religion” per se, lies in the attempt to skim all the “good bits” off the top of world’s religions by collecting what they hold in common without having to get one’s boots mucky by stepping into the historical events and subsequent authoritative traditions. The value of the general category, in other words, is that it allows us to understand and conceptually manipulate all the particulars—it allows for the broad view.

This perspective doesn’t merely hold sway with those who stand outside all the religions and looks down upon them. It is part and parcel of the way that believers themselves see their own faith, and shapes their thought and practice. We tend to emphasize that which we know will gain acceptance from listeners, and so we apologetically couch our particular faith as a particularly well-adjusted historically grounded expression of the universal truths that “religion” is supposed to possess. “Look at how impartially benevolent Christianity makes us,” we say. The difference between our perception of a “moderate” believer and a fundamentalist often lies in whether he expresses his beliefs in language subordinated to “universal truths” or whether he insists on grounding everything in historical revelation. Hence the embarrassment.

The trouble is that the general concept is dependent upon the particulars. There really is no such thing as “religion.” No general definition properly encompases the exemplars. If you want to point to what religion actually is, you need to point to a specific group of people with a particular set of beliefs and practices. This is no different than noting that there really is no such thing as “human suffering.” We all know what human suffering is (firsthand), but human suffering cannot be experienced generally; it happens in this arm broken by police brutality, this child’s hunger, this mother’s grief. The general concept is useful, but only as a summation. Similarly the “universal truths” that are skimmed off the top of “religion” are really dependent on their original context, the practices and beliefs that give those truths depth and meaning. Stripped of that context, what seems to reason like “universal truth” one day looks more flexible the next. Both Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre speak of modernity as inculcating patterns of thought that strip human beings out of the context of a larger story (an account of the origin and goal of being-human) in which to make sense of their actions. Instead we are left with “universal truths” and naked experience to interpret as best we can by our own lights. The context makes all the difference.

One problem with Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between the necessary truths of reason and contingent events of history is that it is terribly hard to find necessary truths expressed anywhere but by contingent and historical people. Reason itself is a historical event. And one does not escape “tradition” by allying oneself to the broadest and least committed perspective possible—it is only within the particular tradition of Enlightenment thought that this disengaged and instrumental stance toward reality is taken as authoritative. It is from this perspective that talk of interaction between God and human beings appears “embarrassingly” historical (and by implication, irrational).

All this to say that there is no way out of history and into the universal—at least not without making some very “religious” sounding claims about the capabilities of human reason. Likewise, any notion of the steady progress of humankind under the tutelage of Reason (now unshackled from superstition) is telling a story about the origin, goal, and meaning of human life, and as such is making religious claims. Finally, secular ethics is, at its best parasitic on the values inculcated by religious traditions. At its worst, it is unaccountable to religious traditions altogether and falls prey to the temptation to objectify and instumentalize human beings and the rest of creation for the sake of whatever appears “rational” at the time. The “universal truths” of secular ethics are a harvest planted by someone else.

These things have been pointed out elsewhere (and more articulately), but I find this pattern of thinking so deeply ingrained within my own mind (repent, repent!) and in the culture around me that another attempt to point them out cannot hurt. So I say, hold strong to the historical tradition of Christian faith, don’t bother too much with the embarrassment over historicity, and don’t be bullied out of faith by a rationality whose ethics feeds on faith anyway.
___________________________
[1] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 273.

varieties of secularism in a secular age :: april 4-5

Charles Taylor

The Social Science Research Council has announced a conference that it is co-sponsoring at Yale University surrounding Charles Taylor’s recent (Templeton Prize winning) book A Secular Age. The book has attracted significant attention from a wide range of critics (some deeper, some more superficial).

 Carolyn and I are going to gear up for a short road trip to Connecticut and attend the conference, which is free and open to the public. Besides the keynote address by Taylor himself, I am particularly looking forward to John Milbank’s paper entitled, “What is Ordinary Life? Taylor, Catholicism and Modernity.” I hope to post my notes and reactions to a few of the sessions here. Anyone else in the area ought to consider attending (and should also let me know so that we can go ruminate on the lectures over a pint or two).

The papers presented will be published by Harvard University Press and carry the title of the conference.

atheism and theodicy

Fellow Regent student Ryan Dueck has recently published an excellent article that details the heart of his thesis. He argues that the friendly new atheists on the block have, at the core of their moral argument, a concern for theodicy. Well worth your time and effort.

the theology of falling prices :: Wallmart’s pickles

This is the hardest I’ve laughed in a while—a line of an email from Casey (with some editing for clarity):

PicklesThinking about theology as a human product is hard because it is honest and scary, at least scary to folks who think God is hanging around Wallmart waiting to give them a deal on pickles.

without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.