crossing the line

interrogating boundaries

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Introduction

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Owen MeanyMy favourite book is A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s really funny. It is one of those books that can’t be read in bed because your unsuccessfully-stifled laughter will make it impossible for your spouse to sleep. It offers the full range of humour, from ridiculous situations through extraordinary characters to profound ironies. And the more times you read it, the funnier it gets.

I also like it because it is very well-crafted. It’s full of the things students of literature like to notice: comparisons and contrast, patterns and parallels, foils, symbols, ironies, motifs and juxtapositions.

It doesn’t just make you think about Literature things, though. It also makes you think about life which is what art often does.

This novel is about doubt, but mostly about belief in God. The novel opens with “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1).

This is an important book because in it’s exploration of faith, it reveals some very important things about faith in a modern context. By modern, I don’t mean that we have smart phones and smart cars. To be Modern means we have a certain way of looking at the world, at the other and at ourselves. The novel doesn’t just reveal the difficulty of faith in the modern world, but the nature of that faith.   The influence of Modernism can easily produce an anemic faith. As you read the novel, you will see this limited faith held by the adult narrator of the story.   I have very little doubt that all North American Christians need to very aware of the power of the Modern worldview to significantly distort all relationships, including that which we have with God.

This all sounds rather serious, and it is, but, don’t forgot–this book is the funniest and most entertaining book I’ve ever read.

I invite you go get yourself a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany, and read it with me.

I’ll be posting at the end of each chapter with my commentary on how the novel might be useful to help us understand our own struggle with faith in our world today.

Be sure to read the three epigraphs that precede the narrative. These little gems are being used to help us focus on the key ideas in the novel.

The first:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. –The Letter of Paul to the Philippians

The first points out that God is close enough to us that we can talk to him and ask things of him. It also suggests that awareness of God’s presence alleviates our anxiety

The second epigraph:

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. –Frederick Buechner

Buechner points out that in the face of absolutely certain evidence about God’s existence, the individual believer would be annihilated. Irving takes this idea very seriously; he continuously undercuts certainty wherever it reveals itself. Or does he?

The third epigraph:

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig. –Leon Bloy

As you read, attend to the connection between Christian faith and heroism.

My next post will be on Chapter 1: “The Foul Ball.”

“Maybe Jesus was a vampire?”

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Vampire JesusAre there vampires in the Bible? A few of the characters on HBO’s True Blood suggest there are. Lazarus, Cain and Eve are presented as possibilities, but then the dim-witted Jason Stackhouse hypothesizes, “Maybe Jesus was the first vampire?” Jason’s evidence for this assertion is that Jesus rose from the dead and he told his followers to drink his blood.

This conversation over a cafeteria lunch wasn’t any deeper than this, but it prompted some of the shows fans to ask the question again here and here.

Silly question? Perhaps, but the answer is far from silly.

Jesus is like Dracula because he could not be contained in the grave. Actually, this comparison doesn’t really work. Although Dracula lived for many centuries, by the end of Bram Stoker’s novel the eponymous anti-hero was dead at the hands of the Crew of Light. On the other hand, Jesus, according to the book of Revelation, is shown to be seated at the right hand of God ruling for all eternity. I suppose Jason’s mistake is understandable given that it’s not likely he’s read either of these books.

Another way Dracula is like Jesus is that they were both thought to be human, but really weren’t. Oh, wait; this isn’t true either. Jesus was fully human. Born like a human, ate and drank like a human, died like a human. Dracula, on the other hand, is not very human at all. He could turn himself into various animals and even smoke. He didn’t come to be like a human, he didn’t eat or drink like a human and he didn’t die like a human.

Then there’s the whole blood thing that Jason brought up. Dracula drinks blood; Jesus doesn’t drink blood. I’m not sure how this is a positive comparison.

This is actually the essential difference between the vampire and Jesus. Jesus gives his innocent blood for the sake of the guilty, the vampire is guilty of taking innocent blood for his own sake. Jesus fills the empty with his blood; Dracula drains the full of their blood. Christ’s giving of his blood is symbolically enacted in the Eucharist, where believers symbolically partake of the blood of Christ. Again, what is rehearsed in this ritual is Christ’s giving his blood for the sake of humanity. When Dracula drinks the blood, usually of a young maiden, he is rejuvenated–it is the secret to his immortality.   As Jesus gives up his blood, he dies. This is the secret to our immortality.

This leads us to another superficial similarity: Once bitten, Dracula’s victims become like him. In the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice, the true believer becomes more like Christ. But because the vampire is all about the taking of blood, innocence, life, purity, his victims become the same–they take. Jesus is all about the giving of blood, giving life, so the behaviour of the true disciple will be very different–they give. This is one of the marks of a true follower of Christ–the giving.

Importantly, Dracula absorbs the will of his victims. The vampire has the power to mesmerize his victims as they surrender their will and become passively complicit to its attack. The product of Dracula’s blood taking will be creatures whose lives are qualitatively like his own because he has consumed their selfhood, their freedom, their autonomy. Their identity has become vampire–a creature that must take to live. Absorbed and no longer distinct.

Christ, on the other hand, desires a people whose wills are freely conformed to his–united with him, but still distinct. The essential difference between Jesus and vampire is that behind Jesus’ desire is a perfect love and the result of submission to this love is, paradoxically, perfect freedom.

Although he’s not talking about vampires per se, as Lewis’ Screwtape beautifully articulates the vampiric view of the world:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specifically, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even and inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition.’ Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters (C. S. Lewis 92)

The vampire is profoundly selfish and exploitative and will refuse to respect the autonomy of others. They use people to satisfy their own needs and desires.   The way of Christ is the exact opposite; in John 15:12-13 he said:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Written by Trent

June 20, 2014 at 3:01 am

Two Kinds of Language

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Rothfuss2I have this theory that English is two languages. Maybe all languages are two languages, but I don’t really know any language but English.  I came across a passage in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel that got me thinking that English can be used in two distinct ways.  If we are reading something that the author wrote in one language as if it were another, we’ve completely missed the author’s intent.

It seems to me that it can be a very precise language so if you want to communicate to your son exactly what you expect from him regarding the cleaning of his room before he goes outside to play, English is more than capable of communicating these clear expectations. Although your son will likely dash out the door before the tasks are completed, it is no fault of English. The precise nature of the language also makes it effective for writing encyclopedias; it is the language of the academic.  In this type of writing, the meaning lies mainly “on the line.”

But the resources of the English language can also be turned toward more poetic purposes.  There are many types of writing which taps into the elegance of the English language. Where meanings lie between the lines, or beyond the lines.   This type of writing is inferential and is able to reach far beyond the sense of the words to transcendent meanings.

I’ve presented a passage from The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss before. I love the intelligence of Rothfuss’ work. This dialogue between Kvothe and his teacher Vashet as they discuss the illusive philosophy of Lethani, illustrates the dual function of language.

 

Vashet leaned forward seriously. “Part of the problem is with your language,” she said. “Aturan is very explicit. It is very precise and direct. Our language is rich with implication, so it is easier for us to accept the existence of things that cannot be explained. The Lethani is the greatest of these.”

“Can you give me an example of one other than the Lethani?” I asked. “And please don’t say ‘blue,’ or I might go absolutely mad right here on this bench.”

She thought for a moment. “Love is such a thing. You have knowledge of what it is, but it defies careful explication.”

“Love is a subtle concept,” I admitted. “It’s elusive, like justice, but it can be defined.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Do so then, my clever student. Tell me of love.”

I thought for a quick moment, then for a long moment.

Vashet grinned. “You see how easy it will be for me to pick holes in any definition you give.”

“Love is the willingness to do anything for someone,” I said. “Even at detriment to yourself.”

“In that case,” she said. “How is love different from duty or loyalty?”

“It is also combined with a physical attraction,” I said.

“Even a mother’s love?” Vashet asked.

“Combined with an extreme fondness then,” I amended.

“And what exactly do you mean by ‘fondness’?” she asked with a maddening calm.

“It is . . .” I trailed off, racking my brain to think how I could describe love without resorting to other, equally abstract terms.

“This is the nature of love.” Vashet said. “To attempt to describe it will drive a woman mad. That is what keeps poets scribbling endlessly away. If one could pin it to the paper all complete, the others would lay down their pens. But it cannot be done.”

She held up a finger. “But only a fool claims there is no such thing as love. When you see two young ones staring at each other with dewy eyes, there it is. So thick you can spread it on your bread and eat it. When you see a mother with her child, you see love. When you feel it roil in your belly, you know what it is. Even if you cannot give voice to it in words.”

Vashet made a triumphant gesture. “Thus also is the Lethani. But as it is greater, it is more difficult to point toward. That is the purpose of the questions. Asking them is like asking a young girl about the boy she fancies. Her answers may not use the word, but they reveal love or the lack of it within her heart.”

“How can my answers reveal a knowledge of the Lethani when I don’t truly know what it is?” I asked.

“You obviously understand the Lethani,” she said. “It is rooted deep inside you. Too deep for you to see. Sometimes it is the same with love.”

Vashet reached out and tapped me on the forehead. “As for this Spinning Leaf. I have heard of similar things practiced by other paths. There is no Aturan word for it that I know. It is like a Ketan for your mind. A motion you make with your thoughts, to train them.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “Either way, it is not cheating. It is a way of revealing that which is hidden in the deep waters of your mind. The fact that you found it on your own is quite remarkable.”

I nodded to her. “I bow to your wisdom, Vashet.”

“You bow to the fact that I am unarguably correct.”

She clapped her hands together. “Now, I have much to teach you. However, as you are still welted and flinching, let us forbear the Ketan. Show me your Ademic instead. I want to hear you wound my lovely language with your rough barbarian tongue.” 822-824

Written by Trent

June 2, 2014 at 5:42 pm

“Just a Story”?

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BibleSome Bible detractors will say that this or that part of the Bible is “just a story.”  In the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the same phrase in their defense of the historic Adam saying that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”

We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to caution Christians from adopting the idea behind the phrase “just a story.”

The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just.”  It could not have been used to precede the words “a story,” after the Enlightenment–when we severely limited our understanding of truth and story.

Our post-Enlightenment worldview equates truth with information, and we believe that the best way to transmit information is in simple and exact language and that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” is makes sense.

But the writers of the Bible had a very different view of truth and story. They were more interested in relationships than information. And they communicate relational truths in narratives and poetic language full of metaphor and other figures of speech.   Truth was something that we experienced through story. Until 500 years ago, the truth in story transcended mere information.

In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world.  The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representative, the priest-king/pharaoh. The Adam story told it’s original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God.  In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible presents the radical idea that both Man and Woman bore the image of  the creator.  Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that male and female are of equal value.  Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths.

The Adam story tells the original audience that the material world matters to the One God and that he created it for humanity.  Consistent with the value attributed to human beings by the creator God, Adam and his offspring are given the task of being stewards of this newly created world.  In a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.

There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis.  We learn that God wants a relationship with the people He created.  We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices.  We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived.  How, deep down, we want to live it.  We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be accomplished, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat death and evil.

To summarize:

  • All human life is valuable.
  • Male and female are of equal value.
  • Human beings have been honoured with very important tasks.
  • The Natural world is very important.
  • We have moral choices and are responsible for them.
  • We usually choose evil.
  • This isn’t the way the world was supposed to be.
  • The Creator of the vast Cosmos loves us and wants a relationship with us.
  • It is only by the actions of this God that our relationships with Him, each other and the natural world will be restored.
  • This restoration will be by the actions of another human being.

These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve.  These are the truths that it’s shocked original audience would have heard.  The author of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners simply know this information;  his intention was that they experience these truths at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives.  I don’t think this purpose changes now that that 21st century Christians are reading the stories.

Whatever it is we do find in the first chapters of the Bible, we do not find “just” a story.

Christian or Humanist? — Yes!

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Science versus HumanitiesLast week, I stuck a link on Facebook to a short blog post I wrote for Abbotsford Christian Schools blog, InsideOut called,” My Coffee Cup and Genesis 1.” I received some heat for this post; I was called “yet another science bashing Christian.”

This appellation, I believe, is misapplied.

Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, so separate out my “Christianness” from anything I do or say, I think that it might be just as appropriate to call me “yet another humanist insisting that science has limits,” (humanist in the sense that I think like a humanities person).

What science does, it does well, but it’s not very useful for what it doesn’t do. This idea ought not offend anyone, unless they believe that science can do everything. Many scientists and nearly all philosophers would have no problem with the limitations I suggest. Science looks at the material world, it cannot tell us about everything, unless everything is material. There are some, many of them scientists, who suggest this is the case.

But as soon as anyone suggests this, they are no longer in the realm of science, but of philosophy. Scientism, philosophic materialism are among the names for this philosophy. Once in the realm of philosophy one must play by the rules of philosophy.

Philosophy is one of the humanities–there’s a lot of critical thinking in philosophy. Like science, it seeks objective knowledge, but it is not limited to the physical reality–one of the branches of philosophy is metaphysics. Other branches include logic, epistemology and ethics. Although philosophical materialism can be argued, it’s not easy because there are pretty good arguments from each of these philosophical disciplines that challenge the fundamental tenets of Scientism.

History is another of the humanities. History helps contextualize the current age with those that have gone before. Without history we might think that, just because we are progressing technologically, we are progressing in other ways as well. One well supported reading of history suggests that humanity is not, essentially, progressing as Scientism often assumes.

Literature, my favourite branch of the humanities, explores ideas with imagination–it asks, “What if?”  From Frankenstein to The Wise Man’s Fear literature warns of science stepping beyond its natural limitations.

Humanities and science complement each other. We are all the weaker without both being strong.  One of the many tasks that those of us in the humanities have is to maintain this complementary relationship.  My Facebook critic is not alone in thinking that arguments promoting the humanities are a defense of a bronze-age mentality.

I believe that science (mathematics, physics, biology), philosophy, history and literature–freed, within their natural boundaries, to do what they each do best–will lead to the truth. As a Christian, I believe this Truth to be Jesus Christ.

3 Ways to Read the Bible

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I’ve been listening to conversations about “what the Bible says” and have been having a hard time articulating why I’m disturbed by the position taken by some Bible defenders.  I agree with them that the Bible is true, but I get the sense that they are using the term differently than I am.  Their “true” is much more concrete than mine.

Rothfuss2I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day Two). It’s a fantasy series that occupies a region between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Rothfuss writes intelligent fantasy.

Below is a passage from the book that, I think, gets at how truth is more relational than informational. And that it has to be communicated in stories full of poetic language and metaphor that transcend explanation.

“TODAY,” ELODIN SAID BRIGHTLY, “we will talk about things that cannot be talked about. Specifically, we will discuss why some things cannot be discussed.”

I sighed and set down my pencil. Every day I hoped this class would be the one where Elodin actually taught us something. Every day I brought a hardback and one of my few precious pieces of paper, ready to take advantage of the moment of clarity. Every day some part of me expected Elodin to laugh and admit he’d just been testing our resolve with his endless nonsense.

And every day I was disappointed.

“The majority of important things cannot be said outright,” Elodin said. “They cannot be made explicit. They can only be implied.” He looked out at his handful of students in the otherwise empty lecture hall. “Name something that cannot be explained.” He pointed at Uresh. “Go.”

Uresh considered for a moment. “Humor. If you explain a joke, it isn’t a joke.”

Elodin nodded, then pointed at Fenton.

“Naming?” Fenton asked.

“That is a cheap answer, Re’lar,” Elodin said with a hint of reproach. “But you correctly anticipate the theme of my lecture, so we will let it slide.” He pointed at me.

“There isn’t anything that can’t be explained,” I said firmly. “If something can be understood, it can be explained. A person might not be able to do a good job of explaining it. But that just means it’s hard, not that it’s impossible.”

Elodin held up a finger. “Not hard or impossible. Merely pointless. Some things can only be inferred.” He gave me an infuriating smile. “By the way, your answer should have been ‘music.’”

“Music explains itself,” I said. “It is the road, and it is the map that shows the road. It is both together.”

“But can you explain how music works?” Elodin asked.

“Of course,” I said. Though I wasn’t sure of any such thing.

“Can you explain how music works without using music?”

That brought me up short. While I was trying to think of a response, Elodin turned to Fela.

“Love?” she asked.

Elodin raised an eyebrow as if mildly scandalized by this, then nodded approvingly.

“Hold on a moment,” I said. “We’re not done. I don’t know if I could explain music without using it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not explanation, it’s translation.”

Elodin’s face lit up. “That’s it exactly!” he said. “Translation. All explicit knowledge is translated knowledge, and all translation is imperfect.”

“So all explicit knowledge is imperfect?” I asked. “Tell Master Brandeur geometry is subjective. I’d love to watch that discussion.”

“Not all knowledge,” Elodin admitted. “But most.”

“Prove it,” I said.

“You can’t prove nonexistence,” Uresh interjected in a matter-of-fact way. He sounded exasperated. “Flawed logic.”

I ground my teeth at that. It was flawed logic. I never would have made that mistake if I’d been better rested. “Demonstrate it then,” I said.

“Fine, fine.” Elodin walked over to where Fela sat. “We’ll use Fela’s example.” He took her hand and pulled her to her feet, motioning me to follow.

I came reluctantly to my feet as well and Elodin arranged the two of us so we stood facing each other in profile to the class. “Here we have two lovely young people,” he said. “Their eyes meet across the room.”

Elodin pushed my shoulder and I stumbled forward half a step. “He says hello. She says hello. She smiles. He shifts uneasily from foot to foot.” I stopped doing just that and there was a faint murmur of laughter from the others.

“There is something ephemeral in the air,” Elodin said, moving to stand behind Fela. He put his hands on her shoulders, leaning close to her ear. “She loves the lines of him,” he said softly. “She is curious about the shape of his mouth. She wonders if this could be the one, if she could unclasp the secret pieces of her heart to him.” Fela looked down, her cheeks flushing a bright scarlet.

Elodin stalked around to stand behind me. “Kvothe looks at her, and for the first time he understands the impulse that first drove men to paint. To sculpt. To sing.”

He circled us again, eventually standing between us like a priest about to perform a wedding. “There exists between them something tenuous and delicate. They can both feel it. Like static in the air. Faint as frost.”

He looked me full in the face. His dark eyes serious. “Now. What do you do?”

I looked back at him, utterly lost. If there was one thing I knew less about than naming, it was courting women.

“There are three paths here,” Elodin said to the class. He held up one finger. “First. Our young lovers can try to express what they feel. They can try to play the half-heard song their hearts are singing.”

Elodin paused for effect. “This is the path of the honest fool, and it will go badly. This thing between you is too tremulous for talk. It is a spark so faint that even the most careful breath might snuff it out.”

Master Namer shook his head. “Even if you are clever and have a way with words, you are doomed in this. Because while your mouths might speak the same language, your hearts do not.” He looked at me intently. “This is an issue of translation.”

Elodin held up two fingers. “The second path is more careful. You talk of small things. The weather. A familiar play. You spend time in company. You hold hands. In doing so you slowly learn the secret meanings of each other’s words. This way, when the time comes you can speak with subtle meaning underneath your words, so there is understanding on both sides.”

Elodin made a sweeping gesture toward me. “Then there is the third path. The path of Kvothe.” He strode to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, facing Fela. “You sense something between you. Something wonderful and delicate.”

He gave a romantic, lovelorn sigh. “And, because you desire certainty in all things, you decide to force the issue. You take the shortest route. Simplest is best, you think.” Elodin extended his own hands and made wild grasping motions in Fela’s direction. “So you reach out and you grab this young woman’s breasts.”

There was a burst of startled laughter from everyone except Fela and myself. I scowled. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and her flush spread down her neck until it was hidden by her shirt.

Elodin turned his back to her and looked me in the eye.

“Re’lar Kvothe,” he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my ****” (253-255).

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Stairway to heaven_jpgI lifted this picture off my Twitter feed and posted it on Facebook to solicit some reaction.

Dylan, true to form, pointed out the very practical problem of certain suffocation.

My first question was, Who made these stairs that will supposedly take us to heaven?  Although longer, they look like the sort of stairs that one would find in an airport or a mall.  The way to heaven is man-made?  This goes contrary to the one thing that distinguishes Christianity from most (every?) other religions.

In Christianity, you don’t get to heaven because of your prayers, church attendance, putting money into the collection plate, by what you do or by what you don’t do.  You get to heaven because of what God does.  God makes it possible for us to go to heaven by the death and resurrection of his son.  All we need to do is accept this free gift.  This picture shows the way to heaven as much harder than it really is.  But Daniel is also right, this staircase is too easy–if you hang onto Jesus it will cost you your life.

Then there’s the caption.  I was trying to figure out what it meant.  Then I concluded that if you “share” this picture and/or “follow” it on Twitter, you can get to heaven.  This is consistent with the works-based, man-made stairs problem discussed above.

Dean noted a further problem, “Following “Us” is only going to get you as far as “we” can carry ourselves. It’s a dead end.”  For those who end up in heaven, I think the general consensus is that one would have followed Jesus is some manner, not people who post mindless, and unfortunately not meaningless, pictures on Twitter.

Written by Trent

April 21, 2014 at 2:41 am

Is there a cure for the disease of hatred?

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Poison treeHatred, a disease?

We haven’t been able to eliminate the scourge of hatred, so perhaps we’ve been looking at it all wrong.

In “Finding A Cure for Hate” Jennifer Yang reports on a University of Toronto initiative that looks at understanding and preventing hatred by “treating it as a public health issue.”

Experts from a variety of fields discussed the problem of hate, “touching on everything from Hitler to 9/11 to the Rwandan genocide.”

The meeting was initiated by U of T associate professor Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who “likes to think of hatred as a disease or mental disorder.”  His idea is that people “are not born with hatred, [rather] they acquire it from the environment, just as people are exposed to bacteria or second-hand smoke.”

Not everyone is on board.  Although not at the conference had he attended, British neuroscientist Semir Zeki, a professor at University College London would have disagreed with Abuelaish.  He believes hatred is a part of our biology–put there by evolution:  “We would not have had this capacity to hate to the degree that we have — and all humans have it — if it had been a negative evolutionary force. It would have petered out.”

I find it interesting that both of these approaches to hatred completely remove the responsibility for hatred from humanity.  If it’s a product of Nature, then we can blame it on evolution.  If it is a result of Nurture, then we can blame it on the environment.  The scariest part of all this is the next bit–where the logical solution to hate is the controlling of the environment; my question is, “Who will have the control?”

Both these perspectives take the responsibility for hate away from the one who hates.

William Blake does not:

A Poison Tree.

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears

Night and morning with my tears,

And I sunned it with smiles

And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,

Till it bore an apple bright,

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine -

And into my garden stole

When the night had veiled the pole;

In the morning, glad, I see

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

I’m sure folks over at the U of T have honorable intentions, but by removing responsibility for hating from the human agent, I fear that they will do a lot more more harm than good.

Written by Trent

April 6, 2014 at 10:10 pm

Can a school discipline a student for behaviour outside of school?

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Home and schoolApparently not.

Riley Stratton from Minnesota won her lawsuit against her school claiming that they violated her constitutional rights of free speech and privacy.

She was forced to reveal her Facebook password to her school.

When she was 12 she typed some things on Facebook expressing her dislike/hatred for a hall monitor named Kathy.  A few days later the school received a complaint that she was talking about sex with a boy.  Consequently, she was asked by the school for her password, which she surrendered because she feared a detention.  Apparently the school officials searched her Facebook account.  Importantly, she did not use a school computer.  I think it is also important that her parents weren’t consulted.

She sued the school and won a $70,000 settlement.

It boils down to the question: Does the school have any right to discipline a student for something they do outside of school?

On the one hand, students ought to enjoy freedom of speech and privacy that we enjoy as adults.

My concern here is that, although we talk about various aspects of students, schools must deal with and educate whole persons.

  • Some schools have breakfast programs because students can’t learn when they are hungry.
  • Schools have counselors to help students deal with a wide variety of issues.  Everything from the loss of a loved one the death of a family pet, from relationships with friends to bullying.
  • Schools are very concerned, not just with a student bringing drugs to school, but in using drugs at all.
  • Some schools exist just because they recognize the importance of spirituality in the life of all people.
  • Family income, cultural or religious heritage, level of parents education, etc. are all part of who the student is as a whole person.

Although it is possible to make a distinction between life-at-school and life-not-at-school, it isn’t realistic.  The school has to nurture, educate, stimulate, and, yes, discipline, whole persons.  Parents, school, church (if applicable), community, etc. are all interested in the flourishing of each individual student.  Each deals with the individual as a whole entity, albeit with different aspects.

Therefore, it is conceivable that the school would, for her sake, be interested in the ways that Riley is using her Facebook account.  The integrated whole, that is Riley, might have been best served by being forced her to surrender her password and helped, with the involvement of her parents, to understand her responsibilities to others and appropriate boundaries regarding talking with boys about sex online.

Riley says she no longer trusts adults.

I’m sure she no longer trusts them not to invade her privacy, but this is not the same thing as not trusting them to look out for her best interests?

Riley has learned a lot through this experience, I am sure, but I worry that with this precedent students will learn a lot more about their personal rights and freedoms, and very little about their responsibility for how they treat others and how they use the powerful tools of social media.

It’s not a simple issue.  What do you think?

The Cosmos

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CosmosCarl Sagan’s The Cosmos was one of my favourite television shows of all time.  It wasn’t just that it was intellectually stimulating, there was also an emotional or even spiritual dimension that drew me in.  I was in awe of the beauty and complexity of the cosmos and caught the thrill of being a part of it.

The show has been rebooted, this time hosted by Sagan admirer, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  After watching the first few episodes, I can see already it’s got the same intellectual and emotional appeal as did its predecessor.  But this time I’m finding myself trying to understand what story it’s trying to tell.

Perhaps the title, The Cosmos, offers some clue.

The ancients saw the divine where ever they looked.  The divine was in everything.  The Greeks called this everything the cosmos (κόσμος).  To the ancients, the cosmos was animate, aware and intelligent.  This animating principle was the divine–the logos (λόγος).

This idea of the cosmos was transformed by Christianity where the divine is no longer located within the cosmos, but outside of it.  This is obviously a huge change from the ancient understanding , but not as great as the shift to the modern conception of the universe.

The modern view is quite different than both the ancient and the Christian ideas of all that is.  Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the terms “universe” and “cosmos” to distinguish the post-Christian outlook from that of the pre-Christian/Christian view in which the order of the cosmos “was a humanly meaningful one” (60).  In the ordered whole of the cosmos, all things found meaning because all things were grounded in a higher reality:  human beings are “embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (152).

Unlike the cosmos, the universe is an infinite, cold and anonymous space governed by “exceptionless natural laws” (60).  In the universe, humans “are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time” (327).

But the makers of the TV show The Cosmos are not despairing.  They seem to be rejecting the idea that humanity is adrift in the “dark abyss of time” in the cold, vast universe.  As if in response to the inadequacy of modern materialism to explain our encounters with the cosmos Sagan said,

Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Episode 1 pretty clearly shows us how small and insignificant we really are in context of the universe.  If there is any meaning, it’s up to us to generate it.  Clearly, one of the ways we might do this is to make a television show that celebrates the human ability to comprehend of the vastness of the universe and be inspired by its beauty.

Not only is the cold deterministic universe rejected by the show, so too is the rejection of the Christian view of the cosmos.  Sagan’s famous quote remains central and doesn’t leave any room for a transcendent God.

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

I think The Cosmos attempts to dismantle both the pessimistic Modern and the fantastical Christian conceptions of the universe by resurrecting, with the power of our imagination and scientific knowledge, the ancient idea of the divine within the cosmos–transcendence within immanence.  Carl Sagan said,

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.

This is a more optimistic picture of the universe than that which is offered by the materialists because it sees it as, once again, more  humanly meaningful.  Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy.”  Human meaning comes from our participation in the “great unfolding of a cosmic story.”

More optimistic still is the idea that the wholly transcendent God created the cosmos for human beings and then became physically present in it in the person of Jesus Christ.  His death and resurrection make possible a deification where, when we die, we are not just incorporated into the eternal cosmos, but where we continues on as a person in (or out of) relationship with the person of God.

Of course, the degree of optimism is not the criteria by which we decide which of these conceptions of the universe is true.  For Christians, truth comes to us, not only through imagination and scientific knowledge, but also though a personal encounter with the logos become flesh–Jesus Christ.

Written by Trent

March 24, 2014 at 9:52 pm