Home Page

Archive for the ‘False Dichotomies – the lines between’ Category

Why I Am Not a Liberal

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on January 25, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Liberal or ConservativeThe main reason I am not a liberal is because liberalism leans toward naturalism.  This is not to say that one who identifies with liberalism always rejects a supernatural explanation for anything, but the idea of freedom is so fundamental in liberalism that it often means freedom from most external authority, and this almost always includes the authority of tradition and religion, and often the authority of a transcendent (supernatural) God.

If there is a rejection of all things transcendent, the naturalist liberal will have some difficulty finding an ultimate purpose to life.

This is not to say that they find no purpose to life.  Life can have lots of purpose and meaning within naturalism:  Enjoying family and friends (and our animal companions), sports and recreation, the arts and culture, seeking beauty and working hard to make the world a better place.

Purpose, is not the same as ultimate purpose.  Many naturalists will accept that their philosophy does not offer an ultimate purpose or meaning to life.

Having no ultimate purpose does not mean living in profound despair.  Some live with a defiant courage in the face of oblivion.  Others embrace humanity’s natural desire for meaning as a bit of a cosmic joke and just delight in the irony of it all.  Many focus on the process and not how it’s all going to end; the process can be a lot of fun.  Making cookies with a friend can be very meaningful without the final reward of eating the finished product.  For the honest naturalist, these and other approaches are preferable to believing in a supernatural source of meaning.

The least acceptable philosophically, but probably the most common way of avoiding existential despair is to borrow meaning from our Christian heritage.  Like the neighbour who borrows our leaf blower then stores it in his garage so long he thinks its his.

These “liberal” ideals borrowed from Christianity can include:

  • Attending to the needs of the sick and the poor,
  • Taking care of the environment,
  • Being hospitable to people who are different than we are,
  • Fighting for justice for the oppressed,
  • And freedom for the enslaved,
  • Recognizing dignity and of all human beings.

There really is no philosophical foundation for these ideals in naturalism.  This critique of liberalism is not just mine, actually, it’s Nietzsche’s–so if you really disagree with what I am saying, you might want to take it up with him.

One might ask, “If these are Christian ideals, why does it seem like so many Christians oppose them?”

Good question.

I suggest there are a couple of things going on here.

For one thing, it “seems” as if Christians oppose Christian ideals, but in actuality lots of Christians and Christian organizations work very hard in all these areas.  These things don’t receive as much attention as the those, who work contrary to these Biblical ideals, especially if they are religious.

But unfortunately it is not just a misconception.  Some Christians are obviously working against what I have called Christian ideals.  But, just as there are many naturalists do not live lives consistent with a naturalist worldview, there are many Christians who do not live lives consistent with Christian ideals.

In the first instance I would call it common sense, in the second, sin.

Progressive Liberal Optimism

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on December 8, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Eddie Izzard’s show is hysterical and historical.  His latest show, “Force Majeure,” gets a lot of laughs at the expense of the Religious and the Nazis.

When it comes to religion, he’s not as bad as many in the popular media.  He’s not nearly as bitter so there’s more comedy than mockery. He also distinguishes between different types of religious people: the ones that do charity and the ones that are ignorant bigots.

Izzard’s understanding of history is quite clear: in spite of some setbacks here and there, we are moving upward and that is the important thing.  One of the major setbacks was the Nazis, but they were merely an interruption in the upward trend.

In the Q&A after the show, a fan asked Eddie if he’d be changing any of his Nazi material when he toured Germany in the coming year.  He said that this wouldn’t be necessary.  He believes that the German people are like us, and that Hitler kidnapped Germany for 12 years.  Once the Nazis were removed the German people could get back onto that upward trajectory.

This interpretation of history is very popular–it is the modern story.  Mankind is basically good and freedom is the goal of history.  Over the last 500 years we have been gaining freedom–first from the Church, then from the monarch, then slavery, then God.  In the 20th century freedom spread through the civil rights movement and women’s liberation and it continues through all sorts of sexual freedoms.

For many, this optimistic view of history has filled the gap created by the loss of religion.  There is an almost supernatural faith in humanity to achieve its utopian ideals.  Like all worldviews…

One of the problems with Izzard’s view is that it divides people into them and us.  The “them” is the religious and the conservative, and the “us” is progressive and open-minded.  It is the later group that is responsible for the upward trend in history, and the former group that is largely impeding progress.

I don’t fault Eddie specifically for holding this view–we are all guilty of “them=bad/us=good” thinking now and again (all the time?).

But it is wrong.

The line that divides good and evil is not between individuals, but within each individual.

There aren’t good religious people (Izzard’s charitable Christians) and bad religious people (opponents to freedoms sought by the LGTB)–they are all bad.  Christians aren’t less evil than Muslims–news out of Central African Republic  is evidence of this.  Atheists have to accept Stalin and Hitler as theirs, and Christians have to accept the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades as things that Christians did.

Because the human soul is divided, human flourishing will not inevitably increase over time.

The 20th century alone provides ample evidence of exactly this–incredible medical and technological advances, on the one hand, two devastating world wars on the other.  The United Nations was born and so was the Atomic Bomb.  The Olympics and the Holocaust.  Civil rights and Abortion.  The music of the 60’s and the music of the ’80s.

Humans are capable of tremendous good, so we may again have another Mandelas, but unless we recognize that the true impediment to human flourishing is the evil that lurks in every human soul, we will again face evils as great as any we’ve encountered in human history.

The solution to our plight is not for everyone to become a progressive liberal.  It’s to deal with the evil that exists within all humanity.

 

Hunger Games: Catching Fire — Cosmetics and Self-Sacrifice

In Books, Movies and Television, False Dichotomies - the lines between on November 29, 2013 at 5:58 am

Catching FireLoved it!

OK, now the thing that really set me off.

Before I was a kid, the film was preceded by newsreels — meaningful because it was informative with a little propaganda thrown in for good measure.

When I was a kid, the movie was preceded by a cartoon–meaningless, but entertaining.

Now, the film is preceded by commercials–demeaningful.  They are demeaning.  They reduce audiences of people to mere consumers.

One of the commercials that preceded the latest adventure of Katniss Everdeen as she, once again, squares off against the evils of them Capital, was for a new line of makeup for Cover Girl.

And the name of this new, somewhat outlandish line?

The CAPITAL Line!

The trilogy written by Suzanne Collins is in the genre of dystopian fiction. That is, it presents a horrible world against which the protagonist must contend. The whole point of this genre, and therefore this particular movie, is to be a warning. By exaggerating and projecting into the future an aspect or aspects of our present day culture, this movie makes us more aware of our vice, or (at least) our folly.

The Capital is frivolous and exploitive. One scene in particular, brings this home. Our heroes are forced to attend a Capital party where there are so many good things to eat, Peeta laments he cannot try them all. He is immediately offered a beverage that will empty his stomach of its contents so that he may start all over again. The irony of this is not lost on Katniss who comments that many in the districts starve while they provide all the resources for those in the Capital to maintain their lifestyle of excess. Oh, and as an external symbol of the Capital’s excess –meaningless adornment.

Enter Cover Girl’s Capital Line of cosmetics.

If the audience were capable of absorbing the core meaning of this film, Cover Girl would right now be attempting to recover from one of the greatest advertising dabacles in history.  Young women would be rushing home from the theatre to post pictures to Facebook of them destroying all their Cover Girl products, or shooting kabob skewers at magazine-ad targets with bows made of pencils and rubber-bands.

But alas, Cover Girl didn’t make a mistake.

They know that we are capable of believing one thing, and doing another.

. . . crossing the line between knowing and doing

We can root for Katniss and everything she stands for, while in our theatre seats, but when we walk into the air, we become, once again, the citizens of the Capital, blind to our frivolous and exploitive lifestyle.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Cover Girl, particularly. I’m sure they no longer test their products on baby seals, but that they succeed in selling a product line based on the antagonist shows a disconnect.

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon buying a compact car called the Grendel, or the medieval peasants wearing Turk Brand jeans, or the British public ordering up a pint of Prussian Ale–in 1916. It wouldn’t be possible.

Why can Cover Girl get away with it today?

Because we are different than our predecessors.  For them truth and action were inseparable.

For us, there is a gap between knowing and doing.

Not so, in the movie.  The main virtue celebrated in the film was doing what one knew.  Katniss, and the rest of the good guys, knew the Capital was wrong in their exploitation of others and that things needed to change, so they did something about it, even in the face of great pressure to do otherwise.  They each embodied the anti-Capital attitude of self-sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, this is the primary error of President Snow–he assumes that once in the arena, Katniss she will betray her professed altruistic values and become the killing machine he knows her to be.  He is right that if she does this, the revolution will be over.  All of the revolutionaries are banking on her constancy–and she lives up to these expectations.  It is not only Katniss that embodies the anti-Capital attitude of self-sacrifice; for Peeta, Gale, Haymitch, Cinna, Mags, Fennick, and Prim there is no gap between knowing and doing.

I loved this movie, because it was true, but does it really do any good if we don’t act on that truth?

And do we really live in an age when art no longer has any effect?

Christian Modernism? Modern Christianism?

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 9, 2013 at 5:08 am

UntitledWe just can’t escape the modern worldview.  The term “worldview” is itself a product of the modern worldview.

The modern worldview sees the world in terms of clear boundaries between categories.  Well, one of the most cherished categorical distinctions is between subject and object.  Implicit in the term worldview is the division between the object, the world, and the subject, the viewer.

But it all evens out because a person who deliberately rejects the Christian worldview can’t escape it either.

Those who claim they have a secular-modern worldview, don’t really.  Their understanding of the world and themselves is unavoidably infused with the Judeo-Christian worldview out of which it grew.  The concept of “secular” is itself rooted in the Judeo-Christian past.  A linear understanding of history, the importance of human rights and freedoms to name a few more.  Science flourished in the west because the universe was understood to be ordered–“In the beginning was the Logos.  Ordered means predictable and this is the basis of the scientific method.

These are just a few of many examples where the modern “secular” worldview is not truly secular.  If it were it would look far different.

Just as the secular worldview isn’t purely secular, the so called “Christian worldview” of our day has been influence by modern secular ideas.

First, there are many Christians that accept the modern reductionist understanding of “truth.”  They are trapped within this syllogism: Truth is rational and empirical; The Bible is true; therefore, the Bible is rational and empirical.  At a popular level, this idea leads to two common errors: that the Bible is true like an encyclopedia is  true, or that it’s not true at all.  Since this reductionist view of truth is so recent and so limited, it is neither appropriate nor useful to hold the Bible to this narrow understanding of truth.

Another way the modern worldview has infiltrated our churches is the valuing of reason over emotion.  This is the one I need to own up to.  I like the rational bits of the worship service–the sermon–far more than the more emotional components–the singing.  And you notice that even by classifying the elements of the church service as emotional and rational I am being very modern.

Third, we have a tendency to be individualistic and we put more emphasis on the individual autonomy than in preceding centuries.  We speak of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” and we sing songs like “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  OK, we don’t sing that song anymore, but we sing a lot of songs that are essentially personal reflections.  There is, obviously, an important personal or individual dimension to Christian faith, but modernism has lead us to put an unbalanced emphasis on the importance of the individual.

Modernism considers faith a private affair that ought to be kept out of the public arena.  Some in the church find it handy to live within this false dichotomy.  In these cases, one’s public life has nothing to do with one’s religious life.  This makes it possible to not claim some income on your tax forms, or to underpay employees, or cheat customers, or pollute the environment, or fail to adequately tip servers in restaurants, etc.  These behaviors do not really touch upon one’s conscience because “business is business.”  In other words, the demands of the Bible are separated from one’s public activity.

A related dichotomy, equally false, divides the world into sacred and secular spheres.  There are many examples of this kind of thinking.   When I was a teenager, there was much debate as to whether or not Christian young people ought to listen to “secular” music.  For many it was clear that Christians ought not do so, and no consideration was given to whether or not the “Christian” music was true, or even good.  Some Christian schools are based on the sacred/secular dichotomy.  The problem with the idea of the secular, as we understand it today, is it suggests there are areas of creation over which Jesus is not Lord.  This idea is completely incompatible with scripture.

 It is no easy thing, purging modernism from our minds and if we could ever completely succeed in doing so, we’d then have to purge our minds of post-modernism.  I really don’t believe we can ever avoid being a product of our times.  But reading the Bible helps a lot.  It also helps a great deal to read history and non-western literature–the Bible nicely fits into these categories as well.  These help us to provide a context for the idolatrous worldviews out of which we live.

 

“Just a Symbol?”–Communion in a Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on September 12, 2013 at 4:58 am

St. Augustin, ViennaThe Hapsburgs were christened, married and buried at St. Augustine in Vienna.  This cathedral has seen a lot of pageantry and ceremony and the mass still reflects a polish and flair consistent with this history.  I particularly noticed this in the treatment of the elements of the Eucharist. 

In all Catholic services, the host is treated with a great deal of respect.  When congregants enter the door, they make the sign of the cross, and they genuflect before entering the pew.  Both these actions are directed toward the host.  After the Eucharist, the priest is careful that to gather and consume all possible remnants of the host.  Water is swirled in each vessel and consumed so even the residue is collected.   The plate and cup are then wiped with a cloth and this is folded and wrapped in an embroidered envelope and later taken to, what I imagine, is a ceremonial cleansing.  This reverence for the host is seen in every Catholic service. In the mass at St. Augustine, all this was done with particular precision and flourish. 

This elaborate treatment of the Communion elements is easily explained.  Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that is, the conversion of the communion elements into the body and blood of Christ.   They are treated accordingly–even the last crumb.

Because, in Protestant services, the elements are not seen as the actual body and blood of Christ, the sacrament has become less profound a ritual than is the Catholic Eucharist.   In Protestant churches, Communion is a solemn event, but while I watched the celebration of the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I wondered if we could do more, especially in the language we use in our Communion services, to increase the significance and mystery of this sacrament. 

I’ve had Communion in a variety of Protestant churches across North America.  On more than one occasion, I have heard the officiating pastor explain that the bread and wine are “just a symbol” of the body and blood of Christ.

I do not contest that Communion is symbolic, but the use of the word “just” indicates that the speaker has fallen into a very limited understanding of both symbol and sacrament: a Modern understanding.

The Modern mind is a rationalistic mind, and as such, it likes to establish clear categorical boundaries–nature/grace, faith/reason, spiritual/physical.  To say that communion is “just a symbol” is to accept these modern dichotomy and suggests the physical elements in sacrament merely point to an intangible spiritual reality. 

The Christian ought to understand the limitations of this approach and see the fundamental unity in all of reality.  The ultimate expression of this unity is the Incarnation; when the Word became flesh, “the eternal entered the temporal, but without ceasing to be eternal” (Zimmerman 265).   God’s redemptive work in the death and resurrection of Jesus occurs in both the physical and the spiritual realm.  The sacrament by which we remember this work is not simply a physical symbol, but also profound and literal spiritual event, for here, divine Grace intersects with nature, and the rational human agent partakes in faith and so is brought up to the divine.  And through it all, God remains fully God.    

Does that sound a little confusing?  It ought to be.  While I watched the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I was impressed with the mystery and wonder of it all.  I thought I could bring some of this this wonder to my own participation of the Lord’s Supper.  The Communion meal is symbolic but it is not “just a symbol.”  And although we don’t believe that it changes into the body of Christ, the bread is far more than just bread.  And should never be referred to as “gluten free Rice Chex” (even if that’s exactly what it is).  

Heirarchy and the Windows of Prague’s Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on August 22, 2013 at 11:55 pm

829St. Vitus has a commanding view of the city of Prague.  This Gothic structure  is visible  from all over the city since it stands within the castle complex situated on top of the highest point in the city.   

Getting into the service was a little bit of a trick because church officials stood at the door so as to prevent tourists from entering the church before mass, while at the same time allowing worshipers to pass.  We fell into both categories, I suppose, but we entered unimpeded because we approached the door with confidence of a parishioner.  Others more hesitant, were refused and had to wait in the long line until 12 when the last mass was over and the camera toting tourists would be let in.

This was the oldest of the cathedrals in which we worshiped on this trip; parts of the structure date back to the 14th century.   The age of the church facilitated a connection to the medieval worshipers who also looked up into these same ceiling vaults.

The homily was in Czech, so I had no chance of getting anything out of the sermon.  Instead, I studies the stained glass windows that rose far above the old priest who was delivering the homily.

Prague Stained GlassHighest and most central was depiction was of God, represented by God the father embracing his crucified son.  Beneath  these figures were smaller haloed saints and kings.  All these figures were attended to by angels which were arranged according to their heavenly status.  Beneath these were even smaller images of priests and nobles.  From my position in the pew, I looked up to them all. The windows reinforce the worshipers correct place in the hierarchy of the universe.

This idea is alien to us today–we know that “all men [and women] are created equal” and wage war against any notion of the inherent superiority of one individual over another.  We understand the individual to be autonomous and equal.

Not so in the medieval world. Mankind was seen as higher than the animals and the rest of the created order, and a lower being than the angels.  God, as creator and savior, was sovereign above them all.   No living human beings were could be measured against the greatness of the saints who came before, and no ordinary human could be compared to the greatness of one’s king.

The people who lived in the medieval world, those who built this cathedral, accepted this hierarchical nature of reality.  An appropriate response to those above oneself is awe and a solemn respect, and this beautiful window would have evoked this response.

We are no longer as capable of experiencing the same sort of awe and solemn respect as our ancestors, because there is no other self that is inherently superior to my self. 

Living in medieval society which reflected the hierarchical view of the universe was often a restriction of freedom.   But at the same time as they restricted, these orders also gave meaning to life and the idea that some occasions warranted pomp and ceremony.   This idea is natural to a people who understand that the universe is full of things greater than themselves.  Although it is hard for us to understand, those honoured through pomp and ceremony in medieval society did not think of themselves in a self-important sort of way; they were living in obedience to the structure which undergirds the universe. 

 We sometimes struggle to understand occasions of pomp and ceremony.

I recently heard a person who had only recently moved to Canada express incredulity over reaction of  many Canadians (and of course the English) over the recent birth of a son to William and Kate.  He couldn’t understand what makes this birth any more special than any other?  The same question would likely be asked of royal weddings and coronations.  The overwhelming expression of joy over a royal birth or other special event in the life of the English royalty is a vestigial response to a world that understood the relationship between hierarchy and awe, and the relationship between awe and ceremony.  Perhaps, the more peculiar we find this behavior, the flatter our world is.

In The Malaise of Modernity, philosopher Charles Taylor suggests there have been significant consequences to this shift from the medieval vertical to the modern horizontal understanding of humanity and society.  He says we have lost “a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for” (4).  Another consequence is we have become more self-centred “which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” (4). 

We Christians have a problem in that we tacitly embrace the modern, flattened view of the universe, except we retain one aspect of the older view–God retains his position at the top.  The rest of the hierarchy has been disassembled, and with  it we’ve lost much of our capacity for awe, and pomp and ceremony no longer make much sense.  If this is the case, are we not missing something as we approach the throne of God in worship?

The cathedral is a celebration of another view of the universe.  It’s not necessarily a true view of the universe, but neither is the modern one.   The vast internal spaces overhead and the beautiful stained-glass windows begin to evoke the sense of awe that would of powerfully affected the experience for those who first worshiped in this space. What my experience in the cathedral in Prague did, was give me a hint of my capacity to experience my own smallness and, consequently, awe for He who is so much greater than myself.

Previous Cathedral Post: Reflections in the Cathedral

Reflections in the Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on August 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm

114I have not posted this summer because my wife and spent several glorious weeks in Europe.  Our trip covered three Sundays and we attended services in the cathedrals of  three different cities–Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.  Worshiping in these cathedrals was one of the highlights of a wonderful  trip.

Holidays are a great opportunity to visit other churches.  Each congregation values different things.  If approached with an attitude of humility, it’s very good to worship with Christians of different stripes because it helps to broaden our understanding about ourselves, the Church and the God we worship.

All three of these services were very different from the very large Protestant church I attend every other Sunday of the year, and the experience provided some significant insights that I will share over the next few posts. 

One of this most fundamental lessons that one can take away from a very different worship experience is a challenge to the idea of what is “normal”  in worship.  The essential purpose of all Church services whether in a gym or cathedral is the worship of God–as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   It’s very easy to fall into the idea that the way my church/denomination worships is “normal,” and alternative approaches are abnormal and inferior.   Honest encounters with difference can help dispel these harmful notions.  

Before a Protestant participates in a Roman Catholic mass, it is important to appropriately frame the historical relationship between these two branches of the Body of Christ.  It is not productive to adopt the simplistic narrative that says the Roman church was corrupt and encumbered by extra-Biblical doctrines and rituals of which the church needed purging.  Rebellion against corruption and some theological imbalances were a part of the early Reformation,  but it quickly became something else.   The Reformation shifted authority from the Church and tradition to the individual.  Before 1517, the Bible was read in Latin and interpreted by the church through the filter of a long tradition.  The Reformation resulted in Bibles written in the vernacular so people could read and interpret it for themselves.  Individuals could also access God more directly without the mediation of a priest.  These changes were perhaps necessary in that they recognized that faith had both an individual as well as a collective component.  But with reforms such as these, the Reformation also ushered in a significantly different way of thinking about the self and its relationship to authority.  These changes prompted other changes which have effected western civilization ever since. 

It’s why we have so many denominations in the church.  Liberal democracy couldn’t be conceived without it.   Moral relativism is it’s logical end–most of the most contentious issues in our culture today are a result of the individual asserting its autonomy. 

The Reformation may have initially asserted individuality, but this grew into the individualism which dominates our culture today.   We understand the self as autonomous, there is no greater authority.   “My rights, my choice” is the modern mantra. 

There’s no doubt that the church needed some reform in the 16th century because it was filled with the idolatries of the day.  But we fool ourselves if we think we are not equally susceptible to the idolatries of the world.  One of the main idolatries in our culture is Individualism and worship of this idol has permeated the western church. 

One of the ways this is seen is with the emphasis in Christian circles on “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”   Although this is an important dimension of the Christian life,  the Bible has much more to say about how we are to live in community than it says about a personal relationship with Jesus.   This imbalance can often be seen in the language we use around baptism of adults and even the professions of faith of those baptized as infants.  We can also see it in our tendency to sing more songs like, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” rather than, “I Sought the Lord and Afterward I Knew.”  We see it in our interpretation of principle of being “salt and light” in the world to be an individual, rather than a collective mandate (for example when we choose and education for our children).

We have the same problem that every church of every age and every place has–we are blind to our idolatries.  By humbly engaging meaningfully with Roman Catholics (or Protestants from non-Western societies) we can more easily see our own idolatries. 

 I hoped that worshiping in a cathedral  would give me a glimpse into a time when we weren’t so immersed in the worship of the self.

Fatal Attraction to Freedom

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 12, 2013 at 2:44 am

I used to have sheep, about a dozen ewes and a big ram named Joe.  This combination resulted in about twenty lambs in the spring.  Once these little ones discovered the wonderful world beyond the teat, they became a huge problem.

The ewes and Joe would happily eat the grass in the center of the field, but the young ones would walk around the perimeter of the pasture always testing the fence.

In the Modern West, “Our vision of freedom is primarily socio-political, with the greatest threat to human flourishing being the other, whether the Nazi, the slave-owner, or the autocrat.”  The ancient conception of freedom is much different.  They had “what could be called a more religious or philosophical vision of liberty, the greatest threat to human flourishing is the lack of wisdom, phronesis, or virtue” (Hunger Games and Dystopia).

Sheep FenceMy experience with my sheep tells me that the ancients have the truer understanding of freedom.

If my young sheep could get out, they would.  This was a problem; outside the fence was death.

Death came in two forms.  The first was coyotes.  I don’t suppose any further explanation is needed on this point, but let’s say there no sheep would survive the night.

The second threat was grain.  I had a lot of whole corn and high protein pellets on the farm to feed the 4,000 pigeons.  There were also various grain-based feeds for the cows, sheep, pigs and horses.  If these lambs got into any of this feed their behavior was predictable—they’d gobble up too much for their digestive systems to handle and they’d die.  I’d find them with their legs sticking in the air.

Sheep eat grain with a kind of desperate ecstasy.  I know this, because we fed it to them regularly.  A few cups per day.  If you ask a young sheep what he’d wish for if he could have anything, he’d ask for a pile of grain, and, the next time you saw him, he’d be on his back and his tongue would be blue.

When the Bible refers to people as sheep, don’t picture the white fluffy ones you see in all the Sunday school books.  Picture one that spends all day striving for the glorious freedom beyond the fence.

 

Enlightenment Dualism

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on January 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

Publicprivate“No religion should ever be involved with anything other than its own place of worship, where worshippers can believe and practise anything they deem fit, far away from enlightened, logical, reasonable people.”**

Where did this idea come from?

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth.  Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality.  Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition,  to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed.  Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief.   Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion.  God was understood to be the creator, but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law.  Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood.  This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment.  The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason.  The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  This view of is the essence of the modern worldview, and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles.  All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles.   He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason.  For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief, (or history, tradition, body, etc.).  Because religion is particular, rather than universal, and because it is greatly influenced by belief (history, tradition, etc.) it wasn’t very long before Religion was thought to be the opposite of Reason.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism.  It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere.  The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason.  If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (about this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

**(Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/letters/why-we-must-keep-religion-out-of-politics-16206389.html#ixzz2Go32sFDT)

Application or Implication

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on December 2, 2012 at 12:00 am

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”  I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application”: the part at the end of the sermon where the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.   I get the sense that this is the most important part of the message, but it feels as if it is the most difficult.  The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between the concept application and what the pastor is trying to do with it, for the word suggests a  very modern approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my models of racecars.  To apply  means to stick something onto the surface of something else.

It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me.  The limitations of this word are becoming obvious.   For one thing, the pastor does all the work and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid.   And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day.  We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them.  We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.

This is not a very good way to interact with any story for it makes it an object to be dissected and a resource to use.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that I can extract and use.  These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions.  It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual.  Stories that are, are usually boring.

Stories are not just ideas or morals, but experiences.  They don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.

Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.

A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life.  Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says.  The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.

A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch.  A priest and a Levite saw him, but walked past.  A Samaritan, thus hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.

If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite.  The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too.  So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.

Implication

Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication.  It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story.

I can enter this story at a lot of points.  I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him.  But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction (Where does your coffee come from?).  Let’s be honest, this is most of us.  I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others.  In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story.  Implication is experiential.

Application puts me into the position of subject, therefore it favours a self-centred understanding of the story.  It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it.  But this story is not primarily about what I am supposed to do; it’s more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

Jesus is like the Samaritan.  He was willing to get into the ditch with the beaten man, and pay his bills and promised to return.  If the story is about me, it ends with my guilt as a crappy Good Samaritan, or as a priest or Levite.  Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires.  The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him.  When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because  I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.

Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is.   By refusing  to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea.  I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story.  By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of stories.