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Church and Enchantment

In The Church on November 5, 2014 at 6:47 am

Liturgy 1When I compared the church services of the Christian Reformed Church I went to as a child with the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church, I didn’t understand why a graphic I found in a textbook said that my church, with respect to the presence of the Spirit within the physical elements of the service, was half way between these older churches and the newer Evangelical denominations. I figured the CRC (and every other “mainline” church) was way more like an evangelical church that one of the big three/older denominations. I mean, I didn’t see a whole lot of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a CRC church service.

Then I began to regularly attend a modern Evangelical church. I have begun to understand that chart. I can see the difference between my new church and my old church, some of which, makes my old church seem pretty silly, but still, there’s something that I miss.

When I was a kid, there was a big Bible on the pulpit in the front of the sanctuary.   I now know that it’s position declared the centrality of God’s word, but even though I was very young, I got a clear sense that this Bible was holy in some way. This Bible was ever used; the minister always read out of his much smaller personal Bible. The fact that it wasn’t read added to the sense of importance, rather than detracted. It was as if it was too holy to touch.

When I was about five years old, I entered the sanctuary with some other children. I felt compelled to gaze at the power and mystery represented by the Book. I’m not sure how it happened, but while I was looking, the water glass tipped and spilled all over the Bible. Although very young, we all knew the seriousness of this act and bolted from the church.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I was visiting with a seminary classmate of my father’s who recounted a time when he was a young guest pastor at a mainline church. Before he started to preach, he closed the pulpit Bible and arranged his noted on top of it. Following the service he was chastised by an elder of the church who informed him that that Bible had been sitting open on the pulpit for over 50 years. It had never been closed.   Now on one level, it is ridiculous to take offense at the closing of a book, but on another level, this book was clearly far more than a composite of paper, leather and glue.

At my new church we recently had a guest speaker who was asked about the differences between our western churches and those of India where he grew up. He offered several differences; one of them had to do with our treatment of our Bibles. He said that in India, the Bible would never be placed on the ground and we do in Western churches and homes.

In my new church, there is no pulpit Bible, actually there is no pulpit, just a music stand. Most people, including me, read the Bible on an electronic device. Other people place their Bibles on the ground when they sing. The pulpit Bible of my youth was not treated with reverence just because it contained the revelation of the Most High God, but because it was more than just a physical thing–it was an enchanted object.

There aren’t too many enchanted objects in our churches anymore. Is this a problem?

“A Prayer for Owen Meany” — “The Angel”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 17, 2014 at 5:31 am

Owen MeanyBefore I get into chapter 3 in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I wanted to point out the pattern of rebirth that is built into the structure of the novel. Tabitha Wheelwright’s death is recounted in the first chapter, but in the following chapters we meet and get to know the living Tabby; after her death in chapter one, she is, in effect, brought back to life in chapters 2 and 3.

The episode when Owen saw an Angel illustrates the essential difference between Owen, with his incarnational view of reality, and Johnny, who sees the immanent and the transcendent as radically separate.

‘THAT’S SO CATHOLIC . . . TO GET VERY RELIGIOUS ABOUT OBJECTS.’

This was a theme of Owen’s–the Catholics and their adoration of OBJECTS. Yet Owen’s habit of collecting objects that he made (in his own way) RELIGIOUS was well known” (270).

Owen’s understanding of objects is definitely incarnational rather than secular. In the secular worldview, an object has only meanings that are attributed to it by a human subject. In Owen’s incarnational view, the objects possess inherent meaning and value without the help of any human subject.

In the eyes of Owen Meany, the objects are subjects–that is, they are something meaningful in and of themselves.   The dressmaker’s dummy is one such object. The boys use Tabitha Wheelwright’s dressmaker’s dummy as an object of entertainment, but it seems to have special meaning for Owen. After Tabitha’s death, Owen commandeers it from Dan and takes it to his house, bedecked in the mysterious red dress. Although he provides the excuse, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO STARE AT THIS DUMMY AND MAKE YOURSELF MORE UNHAPPY” (140), he takes it because of the meaning that is inherent in it. The narrator suggests “that it had a purpose” (142) which only Owen could see.

The dummy, and other objects, possess significant meaning for Owen. Johnny observes Owen’s obsessions with them, but does not understand them, for he views these objects from a secular framework where the only meaning in an object is that which the individual human subject attributes to it. Regarding Owen’s engagement and use of these objects, we might go so far as to suggest that, in Charles Taylor’s words, as Owen enters “the zone of power of exogenous meaning,” the meaning includes or perhaps penetrates him. The important thing is that “the meaning can no longer be placed within; nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is a kind of interspace which straddles what for us [in the modern world,] is a clear boundary” (A Secular Age 35).   In other words, for Owen, the boundary between nature and supernature is porous. The transcendent isn’t way off somewhere, but within the physical world of objects and persons and actions.

How one interprets events is influenced by how one understands the relationship between the transcendent and the immanent. With his secular view, Johnny interprets Owen’s sighting of the angel much differently than does Owen with his incarnational view. Owen was sleeping over at 80 Front Street and was feeling sick, so Johnny told Owen to go tell his mother. Anticipating a reaction from Owen, as he is bound to be startled by the dressmaker’s dummy which stands near Tabitha’s bed, Johnny is not surprised when Owen returns saying, “YOUR MOTHER IS NOT ALONE . . . I THINK IT’S AN ANGEL” (101). It soon becomes apparent that Owen was not reacting to the dummy because the angel was standing on the other side of the bed. The secular Johnny is very quick to touch Owen’s forehead, and conclude that because he has a fever, the entire incident was imagined. Owen never accepts this explanation; he lives in an enchanted world where such visitations are possible. Later he concludes that he had interrupted the Angel of Death at its work, and in so doing, received responsibility to complete the task himself.

Here is the analysis of chapter 4, “The Little Lord Jesus.”

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Armadillo”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 13, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Owen MeanyThe novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany presents a clash of worldviews. Owen sees and understands the world in a much different way than do the young Johnny and the other characters in the novel. The key difference is that Owen is not as strongly influenced by modern secularism as are most.

Modern secularism is the dominant worldview of the West. One of the fundamental features of modern secularism (perhaps the fundamental feature) is the radical separation of the material world from the nonmaterial or spiritual realm. Importantly, modern secularism isn’t just out there in “the world”; it has shaped the church to a large degree.

Modern secularism finds its roots in the Enlightenment. Before the Enlightenment, and in those cultures less affected by the Enlightenment, it is not so easy to separate the spiritual from the material. For the pre-modern mind, a tree or a person or even an act have both spiritual and material dimensions that are inseparable.   Where the modern mind believes this separation is essential, the pre-Modern mind rejects such boundaries. This latter view, because the transcendent indwells the immanent, can be called the incarnational view of reality.

In the novel, it is Owen Meany who sees the world incarnationally.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the features of the pre-modern understanding of the world that makes it different from that of the modern. Pre-modern societies live in an “enchanted” world when the supernatural is recognized as a very real presence in the world. In the enchanted world, meaning does not come from within our individual minds, but from outside of us–the meaning is already there in the object, person or event. It is not something we give; it is there quite independently of the subject, us, and it would be there even if there were no human mind to engage it. This is not the modern view where meaning is simply an operation of our minds.

The framework in which Owen Meany lives is one where the immanent is infused with the transcendent. He lives in a world of filled with enchanted objects–a world full of meaning. Perhaps this is the reason behind his surname.

The events surrounding the stuffed armadillo illustrates Owen’s vision of the world. The stuffed armadillo is an object, infused with meaning. Johnny loves the thing because it is a gift from Dan, but for Owen the armadillo holds far more significance. The narrator recounts the careful arrangement of the armadillo on the nightstand between their beds when Owen slept over. It is always placed so that its profile was perfect, but in the morning, it is turned more toward Owen. On one occasion, Johnny wakes up and found Owen awake, staring at the armadillo and smiling (62). Eventually Owen would tell John, “IT’S HARD TO GO TO SLEEP WITHOUT IT ONCE YOU GET USED TO IT” (79). It is never articulated what meaning Owen has discovered in the armadillo, but his behavior indicates he has found something

Because of what he sees in the armadillo, Owen uses it in an elaborate ritual of exchange to communicate his feelings for complicity in the death of Johnny’s mother. Owen has “no other way to articulate the way [he] felt” (84) about “the foul ball” than giving Johnny his most prized possession—his baseball card collection (another enchanted object). Johnny does not understand this gesture, but Dan Needham explains and coaches him to give something in return. Johnny chooses to give Owen the armadillo and Owen returns the armadillo with its front claws removed. Johnny is indignant at this act of violence and puzzled, for Owen loved the armadillo more than he did.

Johnny realizes that Owen has connected this act of amputation to Watahantowet’s armless totem. Watahantowet was the Indian leader who sold the Whiteman the land where Gravesend is situated. Both the armless armadillo and the Indian totem speak from a frame of reference where “everything had its own souls, its own spirit” (86). For Watahantowet, the land was full of spirits so that when he sold it to the white men, he understood the terrible cost. According to the narrator, his armless totem said, “Here take my land. There go my arms!” (87). This might be true for Wheelwright who come across as impotent in many ways, but Watahantowet is also associated with Owen Meany who is the opposite of impotent. Owen had already formed the idea that he would later share with Johnny: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT” (87). Owen sees his physical hands in the context of divine purpose and armlessness in symbolic of his, indeed all mankind’s, inability to resist the will of God. In this one event, we see that Owen lives out of a world that Charles Taylor calls the enchanted world.

Owen Meany’s world is enchanted, but Johnny Wheelwright lives in a secular world–they function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational view where the transcendent is within the immanent; Johnny represents the secular view where the transcendent is so far separated from the immanent that it is irrelevant, if it exists at all. In this secular view, says Charles Taylor, “all thought, feeling and purpose, all features we normally can ascribe to agents, must be in minds, which are distinct from the ‘outer’ world” (Taylor 539). As representative of the secular view, Johnny cannot understand a world where objects have meaning in themselves, that events may be meaningfully guided by a higher purpose.

Enjoy chapter 3 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Angel.”

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 4, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by the adult John Wheelwright. As he tells the story of how Owen Meany is responsible for his belief in the Christian God, he regularly breaks into the narrative commenting on his life in the present, often on his current spiritual struggles . The faith that he owes to Owen Meany is a very particular kind of faith; he describes it as a “church-rummage faith–the kind that needs patching up every weekend” (2).

Wheelwright has a fairly low view of his faith, justifiably, I think. When he describes his faith in these first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead.   Death is perhaps it is the best place to start the story of ones conversion. Many are under the misconception that Christianity is all about being good, but it’s not. The problem that all humans face is not, ultimately, that we are ill-behaved, but that we are going to die.   Christianity is very much an answer to this most fundamental concern. The good news is that Christ saves us from death; the Christian life is a grateful response to this truth. On the one hand, it is appropriate that the narrator starts with death, but his focus is not on his salvation from death by faith, but on denominational differences and what passages will be read at his funeral. Not much joy in that. Watch for this pattern in adult John Wheelwright’s comments–when speaking of spiritual matters; he usually misses the essence of faith by focusing on peripheral concerns.

In a novel about Christian faith and doubt, the characters will occupy positions on a continuum between two poles. Owen Meany has a lot of faith and sits at one end of the continuum; the young Johnny Wheelwright is toward the other–He says, “the greatest difference between us: he believed more than I did” (22).

It is important to explore this difference a little. Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is modern, which means secular. One of the main characteristics of this view of the world is that there is a radical separation between the material (or immanent) world and the transcendent or spiritual one.   Owen Meany has a pre-modern understanding of transcendence and immanence; he sees a much closer relationship between the two. In essence, where the secular minds of the other characters (as well as Irving and many of his readers) necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany’s does not.   In the novel, it is Owen Meany who is the lone adherent to this more integrative, incarnational view of reality where the transcendent and immanent are intertwined.

But Irving has gone further that just giving Owen pre-modern belief; he’s not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural. The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not given Owen transcendent qualities, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the his materiality and spirituality. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so, Irving shows that he understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Where the secular mind sees things in clearly bounded categories, one of the most significant qualities of Owen Meany is his resistance to categories.   The paradoxical nature of Owen Meany is correlative to that of Jesus Christ. The secular mind resists the idea that Jesus was as both fully God and fully Man, transcendence incarnated in immanence. Both Jesus and Owen, in his far more humble way, embody these paradoxes. Irving repeatedly establishes parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. Owen’s voice is shown in all caps– suggestive of the red letter editions of the Bible. Wheelwright explains his grandmother’s reaction to Owen’s voice.   She said, “‘You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?’ she asked me. ‘I mean caught–their little necks broken–I mean dead,’ Grandmother said. ‘Well, that boy’s voice, ‘my grandmother told me, ‘that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life'” (17). This description draws a metaphoric comparison to the voice of Jesus who actually could bring someone back to life.

Two last things that I should mention. In chapter 1 we see the first mention of armlessness (8). Back in Gravesend history, the local chief, Watahantowet, instead of using a signature to sign a deed, signed it with his totem–an armless man. This begins the motif of armlessness that runs through the novel. The meaning of armlessness is clarified, but never defined. Later in this chapter Watahantowet is referred to as “spiritually armless.”

Lastly, this chapter also shows that Johnny Wheelwright’s desire to know who his father is. Owen prophesied that God would identify Johnny’s father for him. “YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROM YOU, BUT HE CAN’T HIDE FROM GOD” (10). The search for the father is symbolic of every human beings search for the one whose image we bear.   The narrator links the search for his earthly father to finding his heavenly one when he says, regarding Owen’s prophesy, “that was the day that Owen Meany began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God.”

There’s so much more we could talk about, but it’s far better to read Irving’s narrative than my exposition, so enjoy chapter 2 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Armadillo.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Introduction

In Books, Movies and Television on August 27, 2014 at 9:48 pm

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.”

 

Conversation with a Textbook

In Christian Education, Worldview on November 1, 2013 at 5:54 am

Pathways-Banner

You won’t believe what this textbook said.

This is a conversation I had with a few pages of the new edition of  “Pathways,” a Social Studies textbook used in grade 8 classes.  The section was called “Religion and Civilizations.”

Me: Since you are written for use in public schools, it must be a little dicey when you talk about religion given that you are supposed to remain neutral on this sort of thing.  What do you see as the relationship between religion and civilization? 

Pathways:  “Religion is an important aspect of civilization.  In many civilizations, both in the past and in the present, religious beliefs are one way a civilization defines and describes itself.  Religion also influences people’s values and actions.” 

Me: I see.  And why do we study religion in grade 8?

Pathways: “Learning about different religions allows us to understand the civilizations to which these religions belonged.”

Me: That shouldn’t upset too many people, but as a religious person myself, I’d consider this a bit of a limited view.  Religion is more than a means by which we understand others, but I guess you’re limited in how much you can say about religion and still maintain your neutrality.   Tell me, what is your view on why we have religions in the first place?

Pathways:  “Human beings have always asked what we call ‘big questions.’  You have probably asked them, too.”

Me: Yes, I love the big questions.  That’s one of the reasons I like to blog.  But just to make sure we’re on the same page, what do you mean by big questions?

Pathways: What happens to me after I die? What is the difference between right and wrong? Why am I here? Why do bad things happen? How was all this created?

Me: Yes, these are pretty much the same as my questions.  I’ve heard them called worldview questions, and you are right; everyone asks them and everyone answers them (whether they admit it or not).  So what do these “big questions” have to do with why religion exists?

Pathways: “Human beings like to have answers to their questions.  Having answers make us feel more secure.” 

Me: Whoa! I might be jumping ahead here, but are you one of those people who believes the function of religion is to create a feeling–a feeling of security?   If that’s the case, then religion is pretty much a safety blanket for the weak, is it not?  I’ve heard some call it a crutch for those who can’t face “reality.”   Aren’t you supposed to be neutral on issues of faith?  I mean, it is a pretty low view of religion, isn’t it?  Most religious people understand that any security they may feel is merely a by-product of the more important search for truth and meaning–religion itself is actually a product of this search.   I understand I’m not being neutral either, but I think it’s impossible.  Is there no sense in which the big questions that religion answers might be rooted in a search for objective truth?

Pathways:  “But these big questions cannot be answered the same way ordinary questions can be.”

Me: I understand that, but just because they cannot be answered in the same way–or are harder to answer–does not mean the answers aren’t true.  Anyway, you were saying something about the difference between big answers and ordinary answers?  Can you elucidate?

Pathways: “For example, science tells us that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.  This is based upon creating a hypothesis and then using experiments to discover if our original ideas were correct.  With religion, people have to accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence. “

Me: I’ve noticed your word choice.  Did you know you consistently us the term “us” when speaking of knowing and the word “people” when speaking about believing?  I thought it was interesting how you distance yourself, and, consequently, your readers from the act believing.   Where were we?  Oh yes, you said that ordinary questions are the ones that can be answered empirically and big questions can’t be answered empirically so their answers are non-scientific.  That sounds bad when you put it that way.  Are you implying they are just sorta made up?

Pathways: “In effect, [people] have to accept them based on their beliefs (faith).”

Me:  You are saying that something can’t be” correct,” unless it is proven empirically: with scientific evidence.  That means the only things that can be true are things having to do with the properties, history and function of matter.  This would make sense, I suppose, if matter was all there is.  Wait, if you think that, you just answered a big question: “Is matter all there is?”  This is not an ordinary question, it’s a big question.  You can’t know if you are correct because this answer is based on non-scientific evidence.  If you are going to be answering big questions, I might accuse you of being religious.  Then what would happen to your neutrality?  Let’s move on.  So how do you explain why we have so many different religions?

Pathways: “Different Faiths, Different Answers”

Me: Could you elaborate?

Pathways: “There are many religions in the world, and each one has different answers to the big questions.” 

Me: Which one is right?

Pathways: “Which one is right? No one religion has the ‘right’ answers, because the big questions have no scientifically provable answers.”

Me: How do you know that to be true?  Isn’t that assertion based on non-scientific evidence?  I think you just answered another big question: Can something be true even if there is no empirical evidence to verify it?  Your answer to this one can only be right if your answer to the last one is right, and you can’t prove that one so you can’t prove this one.  Don’t forget about neutrality. 

Let me ask you something.  Isn’t a religion that teaches to love of one’s neighbours a little closer to the truth than one that teaches it’s OK to kill innocent children?  That doesn’t make sense to me. 

But, I digress.  Your claim to neutrality seems to be a little suspect; you seem to have very clear views as to how we understand the beliefs of others, but you aren’t really admitting when you accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence.  I’m not sure that you are suitable for use in a public school, because you seem to support one set of unscientifically supported beliefs, over all other sets.  My concern is for the students.  What do you say to a grade 8 student who is thinking about the big questions?  I don’t think it would be appropriate to explicitly discourage them from being involved in religion.

Pathways:  In Canada today, there are many different religions.  If you were looking for a religion to belong to, you could find out what different religions say about the big questions.  Then you could choose the religion with the answers you are most comfortable with, or that fit best with what you already think. 

Me: It doesn’t really matter what religion someone belongs to? At least you are consistent.   You suggest that the choice between religions is to be based on the feelings of comfort each offers or how well they conform to one’s preexisting ideas?  I understand that you think you are being equally fair to all religions, but you are not really.  You are being equally unfair.

People aren’t looking for comfort when they ask and answer the big questions, they are looking for truth–universal and objective truth–because they believe they can find it, just as you believe they can’t.   Given this, people can’t just shop for a religion like they do for a dress–take the one that fits.  (Nearly) every religion says that adherents need to conform to some objective moral standard.  If you are going to respect religion, you must recognize that, the individual conforms to religion, not the other way around.  Your method of selection is legitimate only if all religions were equal.  They can only be equal if your answers to the big questions are right.  But you haven’t proven that they are–because you can’t.

Aren’t you really saying that if everyone had your religion, then we’d all get along better?

Pathways:  “Even if you had a different religion than your friends, that probably would not matter too much.  If fact, you could probably learn something from each other.”

Me: I agree that people of different religions ought to get along.  But I don’t agree that this cooperation is contingent of not taking our religions seriously.  On the contrary, we can only get along if we give each other the freedom to take their faith seriously.  Wouldn’t the picture of true tolerance be a materialist, such as yourself, talking with a Christian and a Muslim over a good cup of coffee, disagreeing, but enjoying the company, the conversation, and the coffee all the while respecting each others beliefs, because, even though they are not scientific,  they are rational.

Wouldn’t this be a better picture to present to the grade 8 student? 

Made for Freedom?

In Devotional, Worldview on October 12, 2013 at 8:31 am

RelationshipsWhen I got married, I was no longer free.  I couldn’t play League of Legends whenever I wanted.  I couldn’t eat chicken wings in bed.  I had to tell my wife that I was going down to the store to get a jug of milk.

But I don’t mind.  Not at all.

I’m not sure why exactly.  It’s not because I’ve somehow gained more than I’ve lost–it’s more like I’ve gained what I lost as well as gained what I’ve gained.  It doesn’t really make sense but that’s the way it is.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I think that this sort of counterintuitive accounting occurs when anyone is in a good relationship.

A. C. Grayling  recently presented the first of eight  “Fragile Freedoms” lectures on CBC’s Ideas.  In it he said that there is no possibility of living the good life if one is not free.

Grayling, along with most other modernists, would be right if human beings were made for autonomy.  But what if we weren’t primarily made to be free?  What if we were made first for something else?

What if we were made for relationship?  Not just in marriage, but in friendship and family, and not just with people but with animals and even the physical world.

The Biblical story suggests human beings are made to be in relationship, first with their Creator and, after, with everything else.  We were made to be the objects of God’s love.  He says through Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (31:3).  Suppose we were made to receive and the to return his love and to spread it out to the rest of the creation?

If this is the purpose for which we were made, freedom is still a very important part of who we are.   Love is impossible without freedom.  There is no possibility to love someone if there is no freedom to reject their love.  It’s all there in Genesis 1-3.  Humanity was created for relationship with God (and with each other and with the world).  We had a choice and chose to reject God’s love.  This didn’t change our purpose, just our ability to fulfill it.

So who is right about human nature?  The modernists like Grayling or those who adhere to the Biblical view of man?

There is a simple test:  Who experiences more fulfillment in life?  The person whose freedom is expressed through relationships or the one whose relationship is subordinate to his freedom.

In my experience, freedom is best enjoyed in the context of relationships, even though you surrender it most of the time.  I think this is a universal experience when we are talking about “good” relationships.  Those who insist on freedom first will be able to eat chicken wings in bed, but they won’t have anyone who cares that they stepped out for a jug of milk.

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.

 

The Story of Human Rights

In Christ and Culture on October 2, 2013 at 1:05 am

Secular freedom storyWhile driving to one lecture, I was listening to another.  The one I was listening to was delivered by A. C. Grayling on CBC’s Ideas. This was the first of eight “Fragile Freedoms” lectures held at the not yet officially opened Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg (listen here).

This is an excellent lecture. It’s clear, unified, thorough and entertaining, but in his historical survey of the development of the idea of rights, Grayling begins in the wrong place.

His story beings in the 16th century. It goes like this: In the Reformation, humanity took its first step toward the freedoms that culminated in the Enlightenment and were embodied in the documents of the French and American Revolutions. Martin Luther and the other reformers freed people from the hegemony of the church by giving them direct and individual access to God without the mediation of the church. This freedom Grayling calls “liberty of conscience” and it began an “inevitable “process leading to “liberty of thought” and then “liberty of action.” These liberties led to the freedom to ask all sort of questions, first, of the natural world, which led to the scientific revolution, and then, of the social and political systems, which resulted in the revolutions in France and America.

Grayling is telling the Modern Story, the dominant story in our culture. It is a story of, among other things, the quest for individual human autonomy. Because Grayling’s story of the idea of human rights is rooted in the story of the human quest for autonomy, he starts at the point where the this quest began, 1517.

It is generally agreed upon that human freedoms and rights are a good thing. And we all like to take credit for good things. The Soviets claimed credit for the invention of the telephone, the Dutch for the sinking of the Spanish Armada and the Americans for the invention of basketball. So too, the Moderns claim credit for human rights and freedoms, and they do this by linking human rights to the modern quest for autonomy.

But the idea of human rights is not, in the first place, rooted in autonomy but rather in the idea of human worth. And this idea has a much more ancient origin.

Why should we respect the rights and freedoms of other people?

 

Because they must be free to be human or BECAUSE they are human they ought to be free?

 

Genesis 1:27 says, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The Biblical story says that human beings–male and female–were created with inherent value.

It is likely we are not all that impressed at such a declaration. We have heard them, literally for millennia. (And this is sort of my point; we’ve heard them so long, we were bound to listen to them at some point.) But how would they would have sounded like in the ancient world–ridiculous, preposterous?

The cultures that dominated the ancient near east, Early Babylonian and Egyptian, revolved around a priest-king, who represented the gods and as such, needed to be treated like one. This idea was reinforced in the creation myths where humanity was created for the soul purpose of serving the Gods. The myth upheld the socio-political reality of the culture–inferior people are meant to serve the superior representative of the divine.  Imagine the how scandalous the idea that mankind–both male AND FEMALE–itself was the image, read “replacement for the idol.”  This idea was immediately reinforced in the next chapter (2:20) when we see Adam naming things, an activity carried out by the gods in the stories of other cultures.

The idea that human beings were not existential equivalent to the muck on the god’s celestial shoes would have been unthinkable, yet it is this radical idea of human value that undergirds the entire Bible.  Jesus summarizes the law and the prophets, which amounts to pretty much the entire Old Testament, saying love God more than anything and “your neighbour as yourself.” Further, the central event in the Bible, Christians would say in human history, is the son of God giving up his life for the world and its people.  And the reason consistently given for this sacrifice is God’s love for people.

This is a very high view of humanity, indeed.

And it is this understanding of humanity, which comes directly out of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which is the foundation of human rights. The events of the 16th century and following amount to a discovery of what faithful readers of scripture had been saying all along.

A. C. Grayling is telling the Modern Story, a story which is based and draws upon the Judeo-Christian worldview.  I hope that the new Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg will give more credit to the ultimate source of human rights as it strives to fulfill its worthy task “to explore the subject of human rights in order to enhance the publics understanding of human rights, and encourage reflection and dialogue.”

The Modern Worldview

In Worldview on September 21, 2013 at 7:12 pm

The modern worldviewLesslie Newbigin’s book, Foolishness to the Greeks, changed my life.  I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, but by reading this book I came to realize that I was looking at the world through some very thick and tinted lenses.  Everyone looks at the world through the metaphorical spectacles of a worldview.

There are competing worldviews in the West, by which I mean Europe and North America.  One of the dominant ones has been around for a while–the Modern story.  This may be in the process of being replaced by the newer “Post-Modern” story.  Another worldview that has been around much longer is derived from the Bible.  Although very different, we in the West look at the world through a weird blend of all three.

If you are going to understand the glasses through which you are view yourself and the world, you need to begin by understanding the basic characteristics of each worldview which is tinting the lenses by which you look at everything.  In our culture, all our glasses are being strongly tinted by modernsim.  The roots of the Modern worldview are in the 18th century, the Enlightenment.  While it took some pretty big hits in the 20th century, many of the ideas which characterize this perspective are with us today.

Here are the main ideas:

    1. Human reason is the source of truth; the light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes really got this idea going and it has suck with us.  They trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. 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 to lead to the truth.
    2. Reality is material.  There is nothing that transcends the material world, or, if there is, it has no relevance to one’s life.  In other words, there is no such thing as the supernatural, only the natural.  This idea is called materialism or naturalism.  If human reason is the source of truth, then Bacon’s approach, called empiricism, will help us to discover the truth.  This only works on the natural world, but since nothing else is real, there is no problem.
    3. The individual is of primary importance.  In the modern worldview, human reason is autonomous.  So also is the individual whose motto has become, “You’re not the boss of me!”  Our history is one of emancipation from those who would curb our independence: kings and queens, God and the church, communism and socialism, and tradition and social conventions.  Our free economies and liberal democracies are testaments to our individual autonomy.  One source of this idea is Rene Descartes whose “I think therefore I am” not only grounded truth in the reason, but in the reason of the individual.
    4. Faith in Progress. Humanity is on an upward trajectory.  Because of human reason and its offspring, science and technology, Modernity places a lot of faith in progress.  It has long believed that we need to get rid of silly superstitions and religious beliefs.  Reason rather than religion will allow the human race to continue up the road toward perfection and science and technology will solve the problems that we face.
    5. Categories and more categories. Because human reason is only autonomous if the world is only material, the modern mind establishes and defends boundaries between categories.  There are many.  Here are a few: mind/body, natural/supernatural, material/spiritual, imminent/transcendent, public/private, rational/emotional, fact/value, reason/faith, knowledge/belief, sacred/secular and objective/subjective.
 The Biblical worldview differs significantly with the Modern worldview on each of these points.
  1. Human reason is part of God’s good creation, but it has also been distorted by sin, so it cannot be completely trusted.

  2. Obviously, the Biblical worldview is not materialist or naturalist because it proclaims a transcendent God who is the source of objective realities like The Good, The True and The Beautiful.

  3. The communal nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit challenges the idea that those created in the image of the triune God ought to be understood first as an autonomous individual.

  4. God’s Grace and not man’s ability will be the cause of any progress we experience in this world, and that’s only if we surrender to Christ because he’s the only one that can deal with our real problem–SIN.

  5. Christ, who is wholly God, became wholly human and yet did not surrender any of his divinity; this alone presents a challenge to the clean categories so loved by the Modern mind.  An honest reading of the Bible will blur many of the other boundaries between the other categories held so dear by modernism..

The problem is, the Biblical worldview and the modern worldview are not kept distinct.  Our glasses are tinted by both of these (and other) contradictory worldviews.