november 2007

against nature
Wednesday, November 14th, 2007
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will to Power number 246, one finds the core of his disagreement with Christianity, and with every system of thought that seeks to protect the weak and sickly against the depredations of what he calls nature. What he intends is clearly natural selection. To Nietzsche, all men are not equal, some should have the right to dominate the rest. Christianity’s error is to make everyone equal, to raise the poor, sickly and weak to the same status as the great men, thereby reducing the powers of the great to excel. The disciplines Christianity promotes, on Nietzsche’s account, produce sickly compromised humans.

But this sentiment which he claims is the result of Christianity, is replicated in the medical profession of the twentieth century. Everyone has the right to live healthily. Everyone should be cured. Take for example the plight of the type 1 diabetic. Centuries ago, this person would have died shortly after the onset of the disease early in childhood before they would be able to pass on any defective genes to their children. Today, however, type 1 diabetics are maintained with insulin so that they may live relatively long and healthy lives reproducing and passing on the possible genetic flaw to the next generation.

Nature is prevented from taking out the weak, from weeding out the imperfect and damaged among us. The question Nietzsche brings up, “Is this an advantage for the human race?” is a pertinent one. We are clearly, by our medical arts, changing the way nature weeds out the weak from the species. Included in this category are dozens of diseased and disabled types as well as weakened persons. Nietzsche could be seen here as one defending the role of nature however justified as the only method of sorting the weak from the strong, providing a division of forces in mankind, allowing those with the most robust physical and mental constitutions to have an advantage over those who are compromised in some way.

He would be correct to say that we weaken the genetic constitution of the race by these medical practices. We set up the human race to failure by increasing the incidence of damaged genetic material. We toy with our future as a race to sully the pure waters of genetic inheritance provided by the brutal pruning of natural selection.

What we really do by this choice as a race is to put more trust in the ingenuity of humans to transform our future. So, we have momentarily increased the risk of widespread damage to the race by muddying the genetic waters. So, we have increased the incidence of genetic diseases passed down from generation to generation. So, we allow defectives and weakened humans to live. We are trusting that the increase in brain power this passion for life provides will be more than offset by the inventiveness in manipulating our genetic code. We are trusting that in due time, we will be able to manually code out the damage. I don’t think Nietzsche could have seen this coming, that the powers of human ingenuity would outstrip natural selection, that the choice to defend the weak and by law ensure the equality of people would have increased the powers of humanity as a culture, as a force to rewrite itself into unimaginable powers.

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traces of postmodernism in feminism
Thursday, November 8th, 2007
I just finished reading Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure. Her final chapter, titled the same, plays out through a number of narratives, from her counselling, to Shakespeare, to Freud, the stories of women and love in literature, blinking alternatively from patriarchy to freedom the re-emergence of the voices of both women and men so long buried under the illusion of patriarchy. “Since culture is what we do not completely see, because it is the lens through which we are seeing, an outsider’s eye is needed. To some extent, girls have this eye until adolescence, and, loving girls, we begin to see it. (208)”

Quoting Normi Noel, “[A patriarchal culture] is filled with a dissonance that separates intellect from feeling.(224)” Gilligan offers a way out of that dissonance. “The road leading to the birth of pleasure skirts the tragic love story, veering off at critical moments, illuminating a path of resistance? (231)” Gilligan takes this resistance as a necessary step to prevent the requisite separation patriarchy requires. Not filling the roles culture has planned for us is on her account a way of expressing freedom that can lead to the legitimate expression of our voices. The reason she appeals to preadolescent girls is that separation has not been forced from parents and so their link to pleasure has not as well been severed. Gilligan finds in their voices an honesty, a truth about their feelings and the world they live in that has not been tainted by the requirements of “growing up.”

To say there are traces of postmodernism in feminism is not to say that postmodernism is not a fertile ground for “second wave feminism (Estelle B. Freedman)” because it certainly has been. It is just that stating feminist goals inside the rhetoric of postmodernism as an effect of postmodernism is largely mistaken. Feminism has its own deconstructive goals alongside the philosophical, scientific, and literary goals postmodernism is perhaps better known for. What I wanted to point out in Gilligan’s narrative is some evidence of our status as post modern people.

The stated illusion of patriarchy is one that deserves note here. In its absence Gilligan hunts for alternate ways of stating the truth of our beings.

I have set my book in the time of the present, in the years following the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women’s and gay liberation movements that swept through America in the twentieth century, precipitating a series of radical changes, so that by the end of the century? most families no longer fit the model of the nuclear family, the family that Zoe calls ‘typical.’ Collectively, we are stepping out of an old frame, and the volatility of this moment in history arises from the sense of vulnerability: suddenly finding ourselves without a frame. (p. 195-6)

I think it interesting that she suggests that this change came about because of these movements. I think the possibility of these movements at all, what drove these movements is the failure of the cultures they opposed to speak the truth, to see themselves as part of the problem, instead posing as omniscient.

I am writing at a moment in history when the tension between democracy and patriarchy has become explosive, the driving force of fundamentalism signalling the power of the threat. Freeing love means freeing the voice so it can carry the full range of emotion and the subtleties and nuances of thought; it imposes psychic equality in the sense of everyone’s having a voice and feeling free to speak. (p. 207-8)

As Foucault reminds us in Fearless Speech that democratic urge to allow anybody to say anything can degenerate into a world where everybody seeks their own pleasure. Parrhesia (free speech) flourishes well only when it is exercised politically when the speaker risks something, where truth in words matches the moral probity of the speaker. Yet in our age one of the strategies against democracy is to delegitimize the speaker of truth by suggesting that their motives are anti-patriotic, and that they themselves are disreputable.

So those who fight the status quo, in this case, patriarchy, are taking risks, but instead of hiding, Gilligan suggests creativity. “The hope of the new, the nakedness of standing without a frame heightens our awareness of vulnerability and, with it, the temptation to return at whatever cost to the known. The birth of Pleasure, like any new life, is an invitation to creativity. (p. 233)” This temptation to return to the know carries with it the isolation from one’s own voice, the bifurcation of feeling from reason, the loss of joy. A decision to retreat or stay with the familiar is one that carries the possible loss of truth as a consequence. (William James, The Will to Believe)

Have we come to a time when the possibility of that loss is too costly, when we have seen enough of catastrophe rising from our certainty, when we can’t recover from the mischief of our own assumptions? Gilligan suggests that recovery from loss or damage can come when the person begins again to trust, to become vulnerable again. When because of violence, “the loss of pleasure is at the center of a ‘family’s world,’ (p. 198-9)” that sense of joy, pleasure must be recovered. Citing A. K. Ramanujan, Gilligan says, “It is a feature of such women-centered tales that ‘a woman’s agency?her capacity to act?is bound up with her recovery of her voice, with her telling her story and having it heard.’ (p. 201)”

Postmodernism leads us in this case to the discovery that patriarchy is a frame of reference that because it is so ingrained in our culture, is very difficult to see. But the consequence of not calling into question the assumptions of patriarchy are the continued isolation of both men and women from their authentic voices and the perpetuation of an illusion that doesn’t allow the democratic expression of those voices. Patriarchy on this account is one repository of untruth, the enemy of truth, embedded in our culture as if it were a fact of nature. (p. 210)

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a michel foucault dream
Wednesday, November 7th, 2007
I dreamed I was in Paris/Cardiff to see my advisor Alessandra Tanesini, but that the meeting was quickly scheduled so I had little time to prepare, just flew across the Atlantic. I was in my residence thinking about my work and Michel Foucault walks past me. I say, “Hi Michel.” He greets me in turn by name and says we should probably stay on a first name basis. Then he goes to my kitchenette area and makes a snack for me then, one for himself. I hurriedly eat mine as if I am hungry or just trying to get the snack out of the way, and when he is finished making his asks me to pray. I do not hesitate but wonder at the graciousness of the great man who knows me well enough to request this. I do not hide the fact that I have finished my snack, but don’t say anything about it either. I pray, “Lord, thank you for being here and thank you for this snack.” He exclaims with wonder at my first phrase. At the moment I wish to complain about how poor a traveller I am and how much I despise it, he suggests that I should take it all in stride, enjoy it and not complain.

Now I do not know whether a dream like this has any significance. To take it as a sign troubles me. It probably means nothing but that I ate a bit too late in the evening and the food was taking its natural revenge. That also may be the reason I ate my snack without waiting in the dream. I woke thinking that I shouldn’t have had cheese and crackers with a bit of salsa. I also thought, after reading Foucault and a biography of Foucault that I had ingested an image of the great man suitably adapted to me.

Was this the “spirit of Michel Foucault?” I hardly think so, but the pattern of the impression he made on this reader is more likely. How does he seem to me and what have I made of what I read? This is a complicated question. He seems tranquil, focussed, generous, open, personable, interested in my welfare, the later Foucault, at least that is the impression I get from James Miller’s biography of him. That doesn’t really answer the second part of the question.

I think I reflect on my own demeanour in the presence of his dream personage as being secretive, ashamed of myself, tied into a scenario that requires a furtive treatment of my reality. My hurried eating of the snack, turning my attention to oblivion for the moment I was eating it, not attending to Michel as he prepared his snack tell of my disengagement with others in the face of my own appetites. I prefer my pleasures to be solitary. This is true enough, and so maybe the dream is a tautology that reflection on Michel reveals of me.

I don’t like this of myself, but whether I will change purely because of this newly perceived shame with the behaviour in the dream I don’t know. It is certainly an issue in my own care of the self. A better me would seek transformation. As it is, in fear of what that transformation might bring, I quail at the insistence of a voice of truth in me about that change. “That I have to find out whether this change my shaming presents for me is worth the effort, or is a risk of trouble.” And the shame is my own. I am caught peering through Sartre’s keyhole by myself, the reflective third person. This dream circularity is a means of truth for me.

I am far from counting myself out of this parrhesiastic game because I haven’t mastered the truth of myself yet, but it is particularly disturbing to be caught so short. As with all the other disturbing revelations about myself, I will place this one carefully on the back burner, turn the heat down low, and let it cook a while. If it is ever done cooking, I may trot it out in its finished state, hoping that it helps someone avoid the same pitfall.

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more off-road disciplines
Tuesday, November 6th, 2007
I am almost finished with Earl Creps’ book and I am very impressed with the scope and breadth of it. The content is impressive. The three-church model he uses is helpful when trying to figure out what we are doing in our mission to reach people with Christ. Of the three classifications; Traditional, Contemporary, and Experimental, Earl happily includes himself in the Contemporary classification. Fair enough. I go to a segment of a Contemporary church in which something of all three classifications can find place, but against my Experimental leanings I find myself in the Traditional segment. My body is perfectly happy there, but there is no mission at all. Well let me be fair, there is mission to segments of the church both in and out of our local congregation that generously support missions of many kinds aimed at finding the lost. But we are on another planet internally. It is a builder planet, a traditional planet. There is no enmity for the outsider and no sense of station keeping, but it also doesn’t move.

The biggest difficulty I have with both traditional and contemporary venues, is that people who really do need to be saved would never really feel at home there. I would no more ask one of my local friends to church with me than I would abandon church altogether to be with them. Now Sunday School for me is, at the moment exciting, though I couldn’t invite them there either. We are momentarily studying an obscure book of the Old Testament, sifting through evidences of all kinds for the intent and truth of its contents. That fascinates me and it is profitable for me. We might read Earl’s book for the spring. I think that would be helpful and interesting. One thing about my current Sunday School environment is that it is the brain trust of the church. It is full of college professors, lawyers and scholars of many different types. People are not afraid to ask questions and the conversation is usually stimulating. But the topics are often arcane and not very seeker sensitive.

About Earl’s book: With so much that is fabulous and timely in it, I do the simple thing here and pick at gnats. Page 111 Earl suggests a weakness with experimental churches. “Constant morphing, however, carries the risk factor of absorption into the very culture the gospel seeks to transform.” I take issue with this on account of some earlier remarks about the hegemony of the church over cultures about which it is dramatically different. I think Earl suggested we are not to be colonising them. And I ask whether the intent of the gospel is to transform culture at all? I think the point to the experimental church is that it takes the risk of actually meeting people on their own terms with the risks embodied in that effort instead of station keeping or organising the risks away.

About the humility thing. At least in our culture, I am all for the humility thing. People who claim centre stage are decidedly irritating. Go Earl! I made an attempt to decentre myself in a class I taught last spring. It only partially worked. I think I was perhaps too impatient for student response. Students were not reading the material sufficiently well, and were not engaged in the project, which I admit was somewhat more technical than would have been useful for an experiment of this kind. This year I am aiming through a series of narratives to decentre myself and my extended explanations even further, to become an assistant to their learning. I have learned much in Earl’s book that goes along well with my own predilections but much of what he says about decentring cannot be said for a younger person who has not reached some pinnacle of accomplishment. They are not centred in their public and some never will be. One must accomplish something using a form of self-promotion, unambiguous ambition, and drive to succeed before his advice is helpful.

Not everybody attacks the world with the same ambition to succeed. In fact many of us are already radically decentred for any number of reasons. I thank God for Earl’s candour developed through success and failure alike, his obvious humility, and love of people. But without the appropriate values that drove his worldview in the first place, how could he come to these conclusions?

This is not a criticism of his work, or his person, but an observation that in order to make these remarks, to any audience, one must have mastered the prerequisites which to some of us are immensely distasteful. I can’t even imagine being a pastor. I can’t imagine caring so much for people. My war with myself is not a lack of humility but misanthropy. Is there something wrong with me or broken that I can’t condescend because I haven’t risen yet? Can one rise to Earl’s challenge from the bottom up? This work is addressed to a class of people who don’t communicate with contemporary culture and need to find a route into that world. This book is an excursion into my community which only uses the highways as a last resort. I am a desert rat in this discussion, wending my way from gully to switch-back to off-road roads far away from the sunshine of any contentment with either builder or boomer culture.

I look like the object of this book not the learner. I am waiting for someone to come off road and visit. I will be happy to entertain you. And, by the way, Jesus has been here for some time.

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first musings on ‘off-road disciplines’
Monday, November 5th, 2007
I picked up Lois’ copy of Earl Creps’ new book Off-Road Disciplines for both Sunday School and my PhD. For Sunday school at ET we will be reading and commenting on some book. I offered seven books for consideration and three of them were approved for further consideration. One of the was Earl’s book. The other two, The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud? by Armand Nicholi, Jr., a biographical and theological comparison of their world views, and The Language of God by Francis Collins, a discussion of genetics and his testimony of belief. So today I am reading through Earl’s book so I can give a short review for the class to help them decide which book to choose of these three or another three offered by Jim Edwards.

To the substance of my musings: Jim Harris, a friend of mine and a Doctor of Psychology, and I have been having an extended and oft interrupted discussion about church problems arising from a poor view of the value of human personhood. Our take on this issue is that almost as long as the Church has existed, at least from the time when non-Jews became the majority of its members, an insidious effort to restructure the disciplinary matrix of the body has emerged from ascetic practices whose purpose was to deny the body, to suggest the ‘person’ is an unnecessary appendage in the Christian life, that the ‘person’ must be denied and replaced with the shadow person of Jesus, that the shadow person of Jesus was sufficient personality for any individual.

Alongside this is the split of the person into two or three ontologically separate parts, body and spirit or body, soul and spirit. There are consequences and inconsistencies arising from this (for convention sake) bifurcation of the human person. First is the condemnation of the flesh as evil in itself. Second, if the soul is the animating force of the body, then what animates the soul?

So, my first move is to restore the unity of the soul and its animating force. The soul is the pattern of the person imprinted by experience of whatever kind on the body (which I will not try to enumerate for fear of suggesting that some experience does not count in the formation of the soul.) This includes the acquisition of language, conscience, moral perception, empathy, socialisation, etc. For the theologian also this means the imprinting of the image of God.

To get at my criticism of Earl’s message. To be fair, I don’t think Earl intends what he implies by the use of this biblical language quoting John the Baptist: “He must become greater; I must become less. (p. xvi)” Earl happily concedes that he should, as he said, “crucify my longing to be at the center of everything. ?[T]he off-road disciplines, both personal and organizational serve to decenter me and my ideas by freeing up the place where Christ rightfully belongs in my life, my leadership, and my organization. (p. xvi)” But to claim the requirement that the person should be reduced that Christ may be increased, neither follows Christ nor does justice to God’s intention. Here is my contention.

Appeal to this line in John the Baptist has perennially been used to signify a renunciation of the flesh and reduction of the personhood of the individual. We are called in this ascetic discipline to be Christ by destroying whatever of ourselves remains. For Earl, I happily accept the project of decentering, but deny the requirement of reduction. Again, I don’t think, at least in Earl’s case that John’s self-imposed reduction implies anything more than decentering. But I think this language is incautious for the general populace because it leaves the bifurcated soul in place with the historically erroneous implication that the body is evil.

John the Baptist was claimed by Jesus to be less than the least in the kingdom of God. Should John’s dictum then be the paradigm case for being great in the kingdom? I think not. Jesus did not require it of his disciples. Neither should we require it of ourselves or others.

Certainly a case can be made for renunciation of bad behaviour and becoming a better citizen in the kingdom of God. But to attach all the bad theology that has come along with it for millennia is a mistake we should avoid. In the best descriptions of what it means for us to be converted, repentance comes naturally as the Holy Spirit impresses on us the need for self control. So addictions, sexual promiscuity and excesses of all kinds are transformed to the spirit-led believer into inconvenient problems that must, for the sake of truth and life, be abandoned. However, it is perennially true that behaviours of many kinds are immediately problematized for the believer in the form of an implacable law of God, presented to the believer by the Church, aimed at the destruction of “the flesh” as the route to “membership.”

The problem this poses to the tender soul seeking God for the first time in life is one of mixed messages. “What is the method by which we should live? Should we follow the teaching of the law or the teaching of the Holy Spirit?” This is a dilemma for the Church as well as the young believer. We are social beings and cannot ignore the urgings of our community except at the cost of possible loss of that same community. The young believer is faced with ungainly decisions that take on the form of a moral imperative.

Enough! It is time to keep reading.

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the job of theology
Monday, November 5th, 2007
I propose a mission statement for theology to define what I think theology should be doing in this age. I do this because of a fairly continuous dissatisfaction with the job theologians have done. I include in the class of persons doing theology, the young earth creationists, the intelligent design community, sectarian apologists, and any others who wish to distinguish themselves by disenfranchising other people or groups. I classify as illegitimate the “us and them” types who draw artificial landmarks to segregate themselves from the unwashed masses on the basis of some view of God.

This need to distinguish oneself, to include oneself among the insiders strikes me as a poor motivation for holding a position of any sort. But I don’t take it that this is the motivation people use to devise their position. However inclusiveness is the rationale for maintaining the insider’s view. What drives the need for thinking of these types is the need for closure. Humans have a good deal of trouble with unanswered questions. Cognitive dissonance is a state of mind sufficiently troubling to force conformity with a coherent system of thinking. We rationalise the unruly parts of our thinking that don’t fit well with the rest of the program. There aren’t many people who can suspend judgement (Br. spelling) until further data comes in. None of us does it all the time, even though we may desire it. To keep the tension between unresolved issues is a terrible strain and the costs are not happily recuperated.

Take for instance the strain between believing that all humans and indeed all animals are God’s children. One must either abandon that premise by saying that only humans are God’s children or by finding a way to reverence God’s care for other living things while justifying eating or not eating them. The second pose is much more difficult and not as frequently chosen, even though it is more consistent, coherent and plausibly more considerate. But it need not be theism that drives this distinction. Just claiming that intelligence is enough to justify consideration of the interests of animals, would put one in the same position of having to choose on the basis of a theological interest in the consideration of those same animals.

I intentionally do not include plant life in this comparison, though a case could be made for any life, that reverence for life should moderate our treatment of all life on our planet to prevent misuse of it leading to its extinction, or the abuse of other species. I say this even though extinction is one normal natural process in our ecosystem that does not require the interference of mankind. I am suggesting that a sustainable relationship with our ecosystem is one path that takes all life into account.

So, to return to my original question, what is the job of the theologian in our age. There are a number of positions that should happily be taken up by the theologian. First, to understand the relationships between sacred scriptures and the cultures they were birthed in. Second, to remain open to the possibility of looking outside their own discipline to create a better anthropology. Third, to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors. Don’t allow theology to operate like democratic courts burying creative thinking under the weight of injudicious precedents. Fourth, stop demanding unreasonable coherence from the discipline, and punishing difference. This requirement plays off the realisation arising from the deconstruction of language, texts and human communications. Fifth, seek to understand the justice obligations we have as communities and individuals.

It is enough to understand mankind, to treat humans humanely, and stand in awe and reverence before God without imposing a rule or demanding adherence to a theocracy which in the beginning and end is nothing more than a religious aristocracy.

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physics and the work of the spirit
Monday, November 5th, 2007
I woke up this morning meditating on Wheeler’s remarks on the clues we have that “it from bit” is a useful guide for understanding the elementary character of the universe. I arrive at the fundamental problem the theologian has: to attribute to the Spirit of God some act in creation without understanding how it all came about in the first place.

I am of the opinion that the big bang cosmology is just a useful model, not some truth about the universe from which we can hang all our speculation. It is of the same piece with the rest of our speculation. Admittedly, it is a good piece of that speculation, but it is just that, still, speculation. It is a useful explanatory hypothesis that seems to fit the data we have. It is friendly with our physics and our theology. It gives us greater explanatory depth than competing models. But in the end it leaves us with numerous puzzles that scoff at our rational powers.

Why bring up this sceptical point? I am certainly not trying to belittle our attempts to explain the universe, but it is all too easy to allow beliefs to become part of the background underpinnings of our thinking without themselves being understood.

So, what I propose is before we go about saying God did this or that, to actually know what happened in the first place. That is to leave our speculation about God’s part in all this to the very end of our scientific project. All we do by including God as the explanatory hypothesis is to reaffirm our faith, and that, without sufficient reason. In addition, we stop research at that very place. However, I am sceptic enough about the connection between reason and faith in God to suggest that even though we know how the universe works, we may never get a proof for the existence of God out of a “true” cosmology. We may even grant ourselves the powers of creation without having firmed up the connection between God and our universe.

The fruitfulness of the proposal by the quantum information gurus, that “it proceeds from bit,” may prove to be the clue we are waiting for. The proposal is testable, and promises universal scope. The thesis is this: The universe is a quantum computer that may both be decompiled, manipulated, and replicated. The line of reasoning used to defend this is plausible, though it is only in the initial stages of being fleshed out. What is required, to begin the experimental stages of this proposal according to Seth Lloyd, is to produce a working quantum computer. We have the theory worked out for doing it and the logic, but the physics of working with quantum bits is still in the early stages. We have working quantum computers, but they are elementary. We can’t just flip the switch and do meaningful work with them yet.

Some futurists like Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near and James Gardner in The Intelligent Universe propose that since our power to manipulate the universe depends on our power to comprehend it, we will turn all the matter we can get our hands on into quantum computing machines, or fancifully, “Computronium. (The Intelligent Universe, p. 14)” There are physical limits to this process, but we will keep pushing our abilities until we reach them, which we haven’t.

To get back to the problem of faith, the thesis that God created the universe may be true. But it is not testable. It can be believed, but not proved. Does that mean faith is antithetical to science? I don’t think so, but what it does mean is that we must not allow faith to govern our research (outside of ethical considerations, but ethics does not necessarily require faith either). If it does, we can be pretty sure that it will stop short of any explanation that carries the possibility of dethroning God. This is, of course, foolish. This problem can only be a piece of fiction brought on by an insistence that there is a conflict between the possible results of science and the dogmas of faith. It is really a fight between those who wish to include God in their cosmology and those who do not. It is a turf war, not science or faith. So let’s leave the “possible results of science” to themselves and leave our dogmas out of fields of endeavor for which they were never conceived. Or alternately, we could reformulate our dogmas to take into account the most recent scientific work and keep our presuppositions about the probable results of science on the issue of God’s existence for stories around the campfire.

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