Category Archives: friends

in response to a remark

A friend of mine said something yesterday that piqued my interest. I paraphrase: “Students in my Modern/Postmodern class will need to pray for help because the writers of the essays in our text do not give any hope of resolving a crisis of faith.” This paraphrase also contains some of what I understood him to mean, I apologize for my failure to grasp the exact thought.

He is correct when he worries for the Christian students in his class. Postmodernism does not try to sew up the cracks in our perception of reality. The reality his students have, and the reality they have constructed is largely deficient in the critical faculties necessary for the raw critique found in postmoderns, post structuralists, and literary critics like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Fish, Gadamer, or even Nietzsche. That is because they have little training in classical philosophy, or the philosophes of the Age of Reason. Most of these believers have been brought up in the certainties of early twentieth-century conservative theologies.

There is nothing in particular wrong with these certainties, except when they face the much longer and more difficult philosophical conversation of the critical schools. The critical schools have little to do with conservative Christianity, and their remarks are aimed at a much broader set of issues in society. Conservative Christianity is the child of a narrow branch of conservatives, perhaps the Scottish plain language school of theology where the sentence in question just means what it says: a form of literalism. Literalism is fine for a small community that doesn’t interact with the wider world. It is too fragile for contact with uninterpreted reality, say, the truths of experience that are only found outside the covenant community. It is part of a closed system that not unlike natural systems, suffer continuing entropy for lack of a persistent source of energy.

Alongside these certainties is the vigor of youth, that turns their certainty into a weapon for defense of their knowledge citadel. This is all, at times, that their elders expect. What their elders do not expect, because they have no acquaintance, is that the knowledge they have imparted, is at best naïve, and subject to the critiques made famous in the postmoderns. In fact, the sidelong attack of the postmoderns on the knowledge of the modern era (from the Enlightenment) is particularly apt at stressing the unexamined presuppositions of the conservative Christian. This is why my friend’s request for prayer is appropriate.

Part of what has always been the character of the conservatives version of education is indoctrination. That is, flatly, “you should confess what I have told you to believe.” This works perfectly well for doctrinaire scientism as it does for conservative Christianity. Their models of knowledge are similar. Happily the attack of the postmoderns work as well on both crowds. The problem the Christian faces is the failure of their worldview, while the adept at scientism finds a new indoctrination that they naïvely see as truth in the same way as the predecessor scientism. Both reactions are incorrect.

Before we get started, let me suggest as an aside, that the initial mistake many Christians make with postmodernism is that they take it as a replacement for what they call knowledge. This is a failure to recognize the difference between theory and critique, between knowledge and skepticism. When the postmoderns speak they do so not as an authority, but as pointing out flaws in their subject’s perception of knowledge. They are not building an alternative worldview, but suggesting that the current worldview is a cobbled together piece of excrement. Some, like Foucault do this early in their careers, but after tearing down get around to building something later on. Others, like Derrida, never construct anything. They are always and forever deconstructing the precious objects. That is perhaps a bit unfair, but I have found few instances of construction in his writings. His puzzling rhetoric annoys, teases, and rejects the foundationalist certainties of an early twentieth-century worldview.

Problems in the Church with postmodernism (I am most familiar with these) range from outright rejection to reassertion of the fundamentals as a response to the critique. But the range of reactions rises from a lack of acquaintance with the material the postmoderns are critiquing in the first place. Some rail against the postmoderns, not realizing that postmodernism is unhappy with all foundationalist pretensions, not just those evidenced by conservative Christianity. But the Christians I know who reject postmodernism out of hand, don’t realize that they themselves have foundationalist pretensions. They want to say that the Bible is a reliable foundation for Christianity. OK, let them say that. They are wrong. Jesus said himself “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, but they are the ones that testify of me.” Christ, and the revelation of Christ is the foundation of the Church and Christianity, not the Bible, (or Peter for that matter,) which by the way, the early believers only had a part of what we call the Old Testament in the Hebrew TENAK and the Greek Septuagint. So Jesus couldn’t have been speaking of the New Testament at all.

So, if Christ is the foundation for the Church, then there is no need to defend the logic of the Bible. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what it says, or understand history, context, organization, and theology.) These critics of postmodernism rightly believe that postmodernism is an attack on Christianity when Christianity has become an adherent to the text instead of an adherent to Christ. Or these believers think that they are defending Christ when they are defending a culturally inept interpretation of God’s intention, mistaking their theology for reality, they have missed Christ altogether and placed a terrible burden on reality to prove their theology. The postmoderns are correct to critique that miscegenation.

The proper view of the postmodern critique is to treat it as a skeptical instrument to call into question foundationalist assertions, that is, assertions of knowledge that rely on the annunciation and exact correspondence of our knowledge with absolutes. Any study of science or theology will reveal how terribly wrong humans have gotten it at times. The critique of the postmodern is just another instance of calling us to account for some of those errors.

What does the believer have to fear from postmodernism? Well, in my estimation, nothing. All that’s required is the kind of reading and research that is required for any other dense and often inscrutable set of texts: a healthy ego, a wry sense of humor, some fair historical awareness of the subjects of their critique, and an acquaintance with the larger conversation. If somebody mentions a writer, say Foucault mentioning Nietzsche, it would be worth your while to discover what Nietzsche was doing that Foucault critiques. If a writer mentions an essay or a book, as Foucault does when he mentions Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” you will notice that he also mentions Dr. Paul Rée who is one subject Nietzsche critiques in his book. Rée is known as the subject of Nietzsche’s critique by any who have read the Genealogy, and so wouldn’t necessarily require a citation by Foucault. But for the uninformed reading Foucault’s essay, Rée is a piece of the puzzle unknowable outside of Foucault’s reference to his ideas. But this scholarly concern of mine is meant only to hint at the many ramifications possible in tracing out the meaning of any reference. Any casual dismissal of Foucault because he “attacks” conservative Christianity, has no idea what Foucault has said and so does a disservice to the hearers, in fact performs the office of lying and misleading.

I haven’t told you what Paul Rée actually said, or what Foucault or Nietzsche said. But a student who wishes to be counted, should be able to enter that conversation fairly as an observer, and later, a participant. A reader worth their salt will be able to evaluate what they say without spitting or cursing. Comprehending any writing is partly a skill that requires being able to ground the conversation in some space, taking one side or another (one of many possible sides). The tendency to see any conversation as black and white is one of the unfortunate characteristics of foundationalism. Every statement is judged to be right or wrong, fitting or perverse. One must be willing to try to see an alternative worldview. You should even try swapping out your worldview for somebody else’s. That takes strength of character, so you may have to work out for a while in simpler tasks before trying it.

Does the postmodern critique give us relativism? No, it doesn’t. Remember that postmodernism is not giving us anything but a critique of failed beliefs, systems, and ideas. You might conclude that relativism is an appropriate response to their critique, but it would be your choosing that, instead of their critique resulting in that. According to Hughes LeBlanc, probabilistic logics function as well as binary ones. And Joe Margolis suggests that a robust relativism does not preclude truth. Thinking in black and white terms is probably wrong. Just because Jesus speaks the truth does not preclude Kongzi or Plato from also speaking the truth. Just because Aristotle is wrong about one thing (actually more than that) doesn’t mean he was wrong about all the things he said. Just because you have made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean you always make mistakes, etc.

Cheer up! The postmodern conversation is a fruitful one, when you can flex like a palm tree in the wind. The practice of shoring up your defenses against a possible attack can give you insight into your form of life, and help you to be transformed and not destroyed by this contact.

public space, private space

My discussion of this issue, at least the inner dialogue that takes place whenever my private bubble is breached, is foremost an internal one. I wonder how people think of their spaces when they live in an obviously public space. So this discussion about public and private space revolves around the psychology of living in public with other people.

This churning of my soul may just be a private dialogue, but it comes when people stick their bodies, voices, cars and other things that they have some control over into the space that I should have control over but don’t because of them. So this begins by thinking that my preferences are just pet peeves. It continues when I think that it can’t just be me who has these thoughts. It becomes an obsession when traffic of all sorts gets backed up around their preference, or failure to form one.

I believe that society would be a better place without these transgressions, but I also think negatively that serendipity and chance acquaintance would suffer from the lack of accidental contact brought about by a less strict adherence to Doug’s rules of order, or even a complete ignorance of them altogether. That said, and I do believe my own self criticism, there is much that people could do to make the lives of those around them less arduous. But a good bit of this only resolves itself in negotiation between competing interests. However most of the necessary groundwork has already been done.

The first principle of space, is being aware of other’s needs for space. And this involves use of the golden rule. Let’s start with an example. Our architecture sometimes attempts to mollify the effect of this particular breach of public space.

After a meeting of some kind, people often gather in small groups and talk. This seems perfectly normal and good as far as it goes. But when people stand in the doorway or the only available aisle to do this talking they breach the public space if people want to get by. Heaven forbid that the conversation is broken up, but frequently the only way to get these transgressors out of the way is to say something and interrupt the conversation. If it is rude to breach the conversation, it is far ruder to force the breach of the conversation by inhabiting the public space as if it were private.

What is private space? Even though every culture has its own constraints on private space, private space is defined as the boundary that should not be crossed by another person unless explicitly obtaining consent. The way people keep their private space is various in different cultures but it remains a sphere that cannot be breached casually without offense. Each culture has a combination of rules either formal or informal that determine the circumstances under which one person may touch another. Breaking those conventions between equals is seen as too friendly, pushy, overly familiar, domineering, abusive, assault, or even rape.

For example, in the US, pregnant women almost get used to affectionate (male or female) strangers touching their pregnant belly without eliciting great offense. It may be uncomfortable, and the touch can be resisted without offense, but it is also an introduction into a world where breaches of private space by the child will be the norm for the expectant mother. But for a stranger to touch the belly of a non-pregnant woman is an offensive breach of private space. Why the difference between the two events?

If we can learn what that difference is, I believe we can obtain a clue to the character of the difference between public and private space.

my friend spencer

My friend Spencer commented on my previous post in Facebook. I quote it here because it is important to address this sort of objection to my dismissal of Calvinism.

Spencer Griffin: Isaac Watts Hymn, “How Sweet and awefull is this place, with Christ within the doors” in its entirety, as an expression of the best of evangelical Calvinism… enjoying the mystery of prayer, which is, after all, where God’s sovereignty and our participation in His Work somehow mix. “People should be converted though our prayers”……and the victorious word of the Gospel!!!! I have been praying to understand how God’s sovereignty infused Edwards and Whitfield to compel men to come to Christ…..The use of people to reach people, what a weak plan Lord! I do not understand God’s ways, its like asking why he let men fall— “there is none that seeks for God” Romans 3:11, and yet the Son of Man came… “in the fullness of time” to seek and to save the lost….through you and me??? how does that work….Good griief!!!! even St. Paul says what appear to be contradictory things on the same page!!!! A world in which contingency surrounds God leaves no room for the wonder of the Gospel any more than does a missapplied Calvinisim that does not pray. But why pray if ultimate contingency surrounds even Jesus…….we need an omnipotent Savior! And scripture says we have one!

I applaud the actions of our brothers and sisters who, inconsistent with TULIP make an effort to seek and save the lost. I have no argument with those who at first (theologically) refusing to do the master’s bidding at last go to do it. I have an argument with those who insincerely preach the love of God to those who they believe are lost by the determination of an almighty God. God to the TULIP is impassable, incapable of any movement in response to our prayers. Yet we know he does respond to prayer, and the best of us prays like they mean it.

I never suggested nor will I that God in Christ is surrounded with contingency. That is a straw man used to argue against any possibility of free will. It is a set of false alternatives: TULIP or absolute contingency. We know more today about the things of our lives that are materially out of our control, yet we are responsible for our behavior implying legitimate freedom. But that freedom is only partial. Jesus suggested we cannot change the color of our hair by willing it. So, being unable to choose in this fashion was never in our hands. TULIP denies that any expression of freedom will change the mind of God.

As I state here and elsewhere, I am not arguing with Calvin or any of his followers’ devotion, or obedience, but the theory he and his followers espoused is just a form of philosophical determinism. Sovereignty does not imply determinism. What a pitiful unqualified god that would have to make people be as he wanted them, and punish others to prove his power. That’s not what we understand as being human, or understand as the loving God.

The point of this exercise is to recognize that God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh’s heart had everything to do with proving his power to national Israel,(and yes to Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and nothing to do with Pharaoh’s eternal destiny, which, by the way, is never mentioned in scriptures anywhere, even Roman’s 9, though it is assumed he is on his way or already is in hell.

But it wouldn’t even matter if God were surrounded with contingency. Can you imagine him wringing his hands at the infinite possibilities that are out of his control? Nonsense. The God I choose who manages the entire creation, (which, by the way is unimaginably larger than any tiny cosmology our forbears imagined) is capable of managing a few puny humans whom he gave freedom to reject him with. He also gave them freedom to accept, worship, love, and fellowship with him, even though we can’t do the simple magic of changing the color of our hair by our will alone. (Some people really look good in shocking pink or green hair.)

I think the argument about Calvinism as opposed to Arminianism is so over and done with, that some of us hold on to it like some hold to a young earth cosmology. There is better theology, better science, better philosophy available than Calvin or any of his modern cronies have imagined. I would be happy to abandon the project of proving or disproving TULIP as a shibboleth of our allegiance to the living God. But some are so convinced that preserving the debate ensures conservatism, that they fail to challenge the ugly presuppositions that hold it together.

Spencer suggested that the mystery of God using men to bring the good news to a lost and dying world is equal to the mystery of God letting men fall. Look at the assumptions that back this remark. First, God could have prevented us from the “fall.” OK, then we would not be the humans we are today. We would be smart animals, guiltless, cunning, capable. But I answer that the mystery lies in why we are convinced that God had no idea what we would do when he set us on the earth this way. The answer to that is that TULIP wants a vengeful God, a God who made Adam sin so he could punish him. That would be consistent.

The only other answer is that God knew all along that his creation would stray, and that, as Hebrews tells us, provided the savior from the foundation of the world not as a contingency, but as the preparation for salvation that would be required. Why would it be required if God set us up so we would sin? We would be blameless on that account. However, the acts in the garden were freely chosen, (even as ours are) irrespective of the lack of foresight they reveal, so Adam and Eve become morally culpable, and responsible, cannot pay for their sin, and require a savior, which God provides.

Either, the God of the Calvinist could not stop men from falling, making him less than omnipotent. Or, God, as Augustine suggests, gives people freedom as a legitimate, active cause in the world, for which each is responsible.

One of the reasons I reject Calvinism, which I mentioned above, is that the theoretical underpinnings of Calvin’s theology are medieval, scholastic, universalizing, absolute, and mistaken. We have more to work with today, better theology, better philosophy, better science.

We can get more by obeying what Jesus commanded us, than what results from a theologically sophisticated Calvinism. In fact, I argue that we could get the participation of a devoted Edwards or Whitfield without the screwy theology which renders their actions futile attempts at saving people God had already determined were going to hell.

people

Squaring away my social enigmas takes way more time than I want to put into it. I like people, but then I can only take so much of them also. I need times away from people to vegetate, settle, scrub my brain from the influences and interactions. That is not to say I don’t enjoy those interactions, but the social definition of my self is only part of my being. I need time to return to myself, restore, recharge.

So, lately, I have been pretty busy. Work at school, work at work, work at home, etc. I am in the middle of two class preparations for the two classes I teach at Evangel. I take this seriously, and so spend quite a bit of time getting through this material, and creating presentations that are sequential, rational, well ordered, etc. One thing I have had to do is work Saturdays to catch up and keep up. I am grateful for my job, but Saturday work puts me in a deficit for private time. On top of that, social obligations on Saturday stack up to overload my ability to tolerate people. I start to be inconsiderate, even harsh, and to avoid further breakdowns, sequester myself to some private place. It doesn’t always work. There’s a bitter, harsh edge to my personality that needs free space and time to keep tamed.

I think of the Sabbath laws set in place for Judaism, and the requirement of rest for Christians. OK, I am not the religious sort, the sort that takes to laws and controls like a duck to water. But this requirement of rest, of a Sabbath, is sounding more and more like what needs to happen in my life to respond to my busyness.

Having finished my dissertation over a year ago, I am finally getting my feet back on the ground. I’m not running yet, but I am moving. I still find it hard to read interesting things that are not associated with my schoolwork, but that is getting better. Even though it is for SPS, I am enjoying going through another pentecostal manifesto book by Nimi Wariboko The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit. He is an African. His writing style is not Western, though it is stimulating and powerful. I will be giving a review of the last chapter in the book and a critique at the SPS meeting in 2013.

What does this have to do with people? I am affectionately attached to the people involved in this endeavor. I have committed myself to scholarship and integrity in order to give a fair look at the material I encounter. I have committed myself to these people, the auditors, readers, and writers. There is a certain pressure to an engagement of this sort, and as I have only recently been recovering from my dissertation, I haven’t been able to give my fully-functioning self to this project. There is a certain amount of envy of the accomplished writers and thinkers in this crowd that I have to get over, and often do so successfully, and a certain mental bruise of the effort of my dissertation that persists, and prevents me from moving out vigorously as I have in the past. There is a loss of naiveté that and that cannot be recovered, and a certain fear that my efforts will again sink me into profound mental turmoil. But I am overcoming that fear, and rising to the challenges ahead.

The scholarly crowd deserves much appreciation for their efforts, and I wish to give it to them both in scholarship and thanks. But the relationships are complicated. I have to avoid cynicism while fostering it at the same time. I am aiming at the golden mean of cynical critique. I really think there is one. It is a living philosophy not a dead text.

today, i met a rainbow

Don’t let my title trivialize this meeting, this tryst, this unplanned koinonia with a brother. In the middle of our conversation, he gave me a book this season’s people by Stephen Gaskin, the leader of The Farm, one of the most successful communes developed in 1971 intentionally from lectures given by Stephen at Berkeley. I have periodically been interested in Stephen Gaskin, if only because of the phenomena that rose organically from ideas worked out during his lecture series.

Clay a resident, at least momentarily, of Eureka Springs Arkansas, started a conversation across a table that I had set my computer down at in Starbucks on Glenstone in Springfield, MO. I was using a gift card given me by a friend for loaning my car to him to help surprise his wife on her birthday. I only mention these details because they are part of the circumstances that conspired to be one of the most intensive and interesting conversations I have had in years. For intensive, I have to say that after about 2:45 pm when the conversation ended until 7:30 when I went to Barnes and Nobel to read Foucault, I was unable to think of anything else but our conversation, and unable to focus on the work I had intended to do when I went into Starbucks.

He started the conversation by asking me what I thought of the idea that Adam was created out of the dust of the ground. I answered him in my ordinary voice that I didn’t think Genesis could be read as a scientific document. He proceeded to tell me about how it is important that we refocus our world around the earth and the ecological concerns over its preservation, which I agreed with. I told him that I was a theistic evolutionist, and he wove my remarks sympathetically into a discussion of sustainable agriculture, of Father God and Mother earth.

I am not going to say that he was irrationally bent on driving a point home. I didn’t feel that at all. Driven? Yes. He was focussed on one point of view that, as it turns out, I am completely sympathetic with. That was the beginning of a 3 and a half hour discussion, centered on God, that wandered, as conversations between strangers do, through books and authorities, likes, dislikes, truths, conspiracies, and the love of God for us and how God can guide us.

We both told stories of God’s grace, and of our significant others, of chance and happenstance, of words and things, of music and sympathy, of the future and the present, of doom and possible resolutions to the crises of our civilization.

We parted, having had an experience of kinship that comes so rarely in life as to be astonishing. We experienced something of the love of God, something of human tenderness, something of openness and truth. Frankly, I’ve had moments like this with my Christian brothers and sisters, but not ever before with a stranger.

I saw myself judging his trustworthiness to invite to my house. I felt ashamed of myself. Have I become so calloused as to be unable to recognize purity when I see it? No, but I have become suspicious of people in general. But here is a human who asked nothing of me more than my opinion, which I gave him, which I had not intended to give anyone at that time. I opened myself to contact with an alien and found a brother.

But the conservatives will ask whether he was theologically pure. Well, no, but then they aren’t either. His soul was pure, at least pure enough for my blunt senses to see it. I want for everyone to see it. It is a wonder, a sign, a ray of hope.

I know my own story of aiming to please God, and now I know something of his parallel story, of the miracle of guidance, of the grace of God in him, the hope of glory. Is there a way to suggest that in every conversation we should be offering humbly the bread of our life in Christ without also judging the linguistic perfection of their offering.

Clay gave to me, I gave to him, I did not turn his offering away, nor did he turn mine away. We gave each other of God that which we have, and left richer than we came. We ate at God’s table together. I am happy and sad for this meeting. Happy for this unexpected tryst. Sad that the purposes of my life look so impoverished compared to this serendipitous companionship. The fear that he spat on my life in retrospect is rejected as unworthy of the moment of our communion.

This event makes me love my friends and my family even more, and makes me want to be a better man, makes me want to open the doors of my students’ minds to truths unavailable previously, and allow them to look into life. For a human moment, this is one of the best sorts, and for me one of the best. Thank you God. Thank you Clay.