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The denial and dissimulation of grace, though always a human temptation, became especially pronounced and systemic in the modern world. While it is common to refer to this development as the ‘desanctification’ or ‘disenchantment’ of the world, the key element in this process is the emptying out of the world’s divine referent. What begins to emerge is the idea of pure ‘nature,’ a conception that reduces material reality to a mathematical and mechanical core that operates according to ‘natural laws’ and can be appropriated by us as a resource for our own ends. As natural, the world does not find its origin or end in God. It does not bear witness to a divine intention. If it has any purpose at all, it is of a wholly immanent sort that can be understood–and exploited–through scientific and technological effort.

Norman Wirzba, “Agrarianism after Modernity” in J. K. A. Smith, ed., After Modernity (2008), p. 249.

What our reaction to the Arab protests tells us about ourselves

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Many of us are surprised by the vitriolic response by some Muslims to viewing The Innocence of Muslims, a film that appears to be so facile that many Westerners have difficulty taking it seriously. Circulation of the video in the Arab world has caused (with a little help from some bad actors aiming to use the unrest to further their own ends) protests in several countries. In Libya, the unrest allowed an insurgent group to launch an attack on the U.S. mission there, which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and several other foreign service personnel.

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What’s the big deal? We might be tempted to consider this whole event as analogous to fundamentalist Christians rioting on the streets of London after the release of a movie like, say, The Life of Brian. Released in 1979, the movie (written and performed by Monty Python) chronicled the life of one Brian Cohen. Brian was born on the original Christmas Day, literally in the next stable to Jesus. He proceeds to spend the rest of his life being mistaken for the Christ–even as he is crucified.

Since I was four at the time of the film’s release, I have no firsthand recollection of responses to it’s release thirty-three years ago. However, some very brief research (via the internet) shows that responses were quite critical, especially by the religious establishment. In fact, the English town of Torbay only dropped it’s ban on showing the movie in 2008! Several countries (including Norway) banned the movie totally. To my knowledge, there were no violent protests, although the movie was picketed by Rabbis and Nuns when it was screened in London.

Our confused reaction to the Arab protests tells us a great deal about ourselves. More than anything else, our reaction shows how profoundly unfamiliar we are with anything other than secular societies.

“The secular” is a space in society where religious considerations are not permitted to be taken into account. In this realm or sphere we believe that secular reason becomes a common language (or authority) to which we can commonly appeal in making decisions.

Those of us living in the United States intuitively know, for example, that it is somehow not permissible to apply religious or theological litmus tests to creative works, government policy, or business practices.

Dan Cathy’s contention that gay marriage is inappropriate and his endorsement of tradition heterosexual marriage resulted in a lot of negative publicity and for his company, Chick-fil-A.

In discussing abortion in the 2008 election cycle President Obama made it clear that religious arguments for the sanctity of human life (even human life in utero) ought not to be considered in deciding policy.

No less a figure than Salman Rushdie has recently commented that in secular civil society no belief or tenet is off-limits to art on NPR.

So, art is created and disseminated in the realm of the secular as is policy. Business is conducted in the realm of the secular. To the extent that religious arguments or beliefs influence decisions it is not because those arguments (or considerations) are authoritative in themselves. Instead their influence is utilitarian. For example, when Howard Schultz decided to back out of appearing at Willow Creek’s leadership conference several years ago it was a utilitarian decision. The religious argument was: evangelical Christians discriminate against gays and lesbians therefore evangelical Christianity is, at best, discriminatory and, at worst, a hate group.

It’s likely that had Schultz thought this in the first instance, he would not have accepted the invitation. Instead, his decision to back out appealed to secular reason in the form of making a “business decision” because pressure from GLBT groups could have had an adverse effect on the Starbucks brand. This is not an explicitly theological rationale, it is a utilitarian rationale.

We are profoundly familiar with religious and theological considerations being marginalized in order for our highly pluralistic, capitalist society to function. Our secularism is enshrined in our First Amendment. Free speech can only exist where there is (intellectual) space in which that speech can take place–the secular. Americans find it intuitively ridiculous that, say, LifeWay Christian Stores should refuse to carry a book because the word “vagina” is printed therein. Why? Because we believe that the vast majority of our existence takes place in secular space, a marketplace of ideas and opinion with only secular reason as an arbiter of rival claims.

Our secularism does not permit us to conceive of a society in which all intellectual space is sacred. Or perhaps, more accurately, we have a hard time conceiving of a sacredness that could permeate our entire existence, individually and corporately. Until we’re able to do this, at least as a mental experiment, the fact that many parts of the world are offended by this film or do not particularly wish to be democracies, will always mystify us.

Which books changed your life?

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What was your Hortensius? What one (or more) books had a significant influence on you early in your life?

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In Confessions Augustine recounts a significant juncture in his spiritual journey. He writes,

“…I came to a book by Cicero, whose eloquence, if not his thoughts, is admired by all. But this book of his contains an exhortation to philosophy: it is called the Hortensius. It was this book that changed my outlook, that changed my prayers and turned them to you, O Lord, and made my aspirations and desires other than they had been…..” (3.4.7)

For Augustine, Hortensius kindled within him a desire for “the immortality conferred by philosophy.” It was a turning point because he desired to read that book for it’s own value rather than as a means to increase his rhetorical ability. This shift was, according to Augustine, the beginning of his return to God.

Is there a book like that in your own life? A book whose influence changed the course of your life and made you different than you otherwise might have been?

Todd Aiken and the challenge of secularism

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I haven’t followed the implosion of Covenant Seminary alumnus and Republican representative Todd Aiken’s political flame out. About the only thing I can say about it is that Aiken said something stupid. Of course, he’s a politician. Most politicians are better at the art of getting elected than they are at the art of thinking. They pay other people to think on their behalf and other people pay them to vote on their behalf. Okay, that was snarky–forgive me.

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It is interesting to read the responses to Aiken’s gaffe because they expose the real religion of American society–a secular, liberal faith in the autonomy of the individual and the bracketing of religious claims to knowledge outside of the public square. When I say religious, theological is closer to the point. Secular society has effectively come to understand religious or theological knowledge as something other than what it is–that is, knowledge. It is opinion or, worse, some manifestation of a Nietzschean will to power.

L. Z. Granderson writes,

Some social conservatives talk of protecting religious freedom, but what they are really seeking is a theocracy that places limits on freedom based on a version of Judeo-Christianity that fits their liking. That language is also being considered for the GOP’s national platform. Some speak of fighting abortion because of their religious convictions and then belittle the trauma caused by rape.

Granderson here describes in a via negativa the fundamental tenets of the secular society–which is an alternate gospel, an a-gospel as it were.

So what does Granderson’s society look like:

It is free of religious or theological knowledge. Such knowledge can only produce a “theocracy.”

It places no limits on the autonomy of the individual. The limitation of the rights of the individual to pursue what pleases him is oppression–any form of restriction to self-definition or self-actualization is a form of violence fit to done away with.

This is a profound challenge to Christian people. Why? Because the view that Granderson is espousing is a rival gospel and a rival religion. As Christians we’re told that we are to have no other God than God. And yet, the dominant social theory of today and our dominant self-understanding in the political sphere enthrones each of us as god–a profound idolatry.

There is no knowledge that is not first theological knowledge–grounded in an embrace of or a rejection of the God in whom all that is consists. The issue for Christians is how to live faithfully in a post-Christian world where each of us is seen as the sum of our appetites rather than a being made in the image and likeness of God.

Why reading is dying

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I was listening to Michael Hyatt’s podcast a couple of days ago. He was discussing a recent article from Newsweek about the ways in which our increased reliance on electronically-mediated communication is changing our brains. You can listen to the episode here.

As I listened it brought to mind Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google making us stupid?” and his subsequent book, The ShallowsThese two articles make a common claim: electronic communication is fundamentally changing the way in which our brains work.

Reading is, for many Americans, an essential job skill. We read more than we ever have. However, we read in a fundamentally different (and more shallow) way than before. The internet, social media, and email have combined to acclimate us to a superficial type of reading that essentially involves scanning to find pieces of information within a body of words. It’s an atomistic reading–it’s goal is simply to pick out what we need to know from a sea of modifiers and extraneous verbiage.

The reading of good books, ones that communicate complex ideas rather than packets of information, seems to have fallen on hard times. We buy more books than ever, yet we read them less and what we do read is essentially “dumbed down” for us. I don’t think this is a good thing for society. It surely is either the result of our cultural impoverishment or will be a contributing factor to it.

It’s an especially disturbing trend for the Christian Church. Christianity espouses a theological lens through which to view existence. That lens is the constructed on the basis of revelation rather than the product of some neutral secular reasoning that exists in the naked public square. For Christians revelation comes principally in the person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who is witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, those Scriptures are themselves a revelation of God to His people. Beyond this, we see testimony to God in nature.

When the church loses its capacity to read, to read and reflect on the Scriptures, trouble is sure to follow–and has.

Prior my sabbatical, I was beginning to notice in myself much of what Carr lamented in his article. I was struggling to read. It sounds silly, but it was difficult to sit down and spend an hour to read something that would require focused reading, critical engagement, and reflection. As someone whose context for ministry is the academy, this is not a good thing.

A week into my sabbatical and now almost completely disconnected from electronic communication, I am finding that my desire to read and my ability to read is bouncing back.

I’m more than a hundred pages into a book on Radical Orthodoxy, a theological movement that appropriates the insights of continental philosophy to engage with Augustine and other pre-modern Church Fathers to construct a post-secular theology. It’s pretty heady. Guess what? I’m loving it.

A big part of making the change was stepping back from social media and limiting my time online. You might want to check out the disciplines (habits) that Michael Hyatt lists for keeping your sanity in a technological society:

  1. The discipline of rest.
  2. The discipline of reflection.
  3. The discipline of reading.
  4. The discipline of relationships.
  5. The discipline of recreation.