Saturday, December 26, 2009

Soul Searching, Part 2- The Influence of Parents, Other Adults, And Relationships

A handful of interesting passages from the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton:

One of the key themes of this book is that parents are normally very important in shaping the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, even though they may not realize it. It seems that many parents of teens rely primarily on the immediate evidence of the overt attitudes, statements, and sometimes behaviors that their teenage children dole out to them on a daily basis in order to estimate their current level of parental influence. Many of the attitudes and statements that teenagers communicate to their parents do not exactly express great admiration and gratitude for and readiness to listen to, emulate, or freely obey their parents. Many parents therefore appear to come to the conclusion that they have lost their influence in shaping the lives of their teenage children, that they no longer make any significant difference. But for most, this conclusion is mistaken. Teenagers' attitudes, verbal utterances, and immediate behaviors are often not the best evidence with which to estimate parental influence in their lives. For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents- more often than do their peers- their children's apparent resistance and lack of appreciation notwithstanding. This influence often also includes parental influence in adolescents' religious and spiritual lives. Simply by living and interacting with their children, most parents establish expectations, define normalcy, model life practices, set boundaries, and make demands- all of which cannot help but influence teenagers, for good or ill. Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people's religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.

- p. 56

Parents for whom faith is quite important are thus likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is quite important, while parents whose faith is not important are likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is also not important. The fit is not perfect. None of this is guaranteed or determined, and sometimes, in specific instances, things turn out otherwise. But overall positive association is clear… In sum, therefore, we think that the best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children's most likely religious outcomes is this: "We'll get what we are."

- p. 57

Large majorities of teens from all religious traditions report having nonfamily adults in their religious congregations whom they enjoy talking to and who give them lots of encouragement… The majority of teens who do not have such enjoyable and encouraging adult ties in their congregations… say that they wish they did… Religious organizations thus appear to help foster cross-generational relational ties for large numbers of US teenagers, ties we would expect to help legitimize and reinforce the religious faith and practices of those teens.

- pp. 60-61

Religious faith and practice in American teenagers' lives operate in a social and institutional environment that is highly competitive for time, attention, and energy. Religious interests and values in teens' lives typically compete against those of school, homework, television, other media, sports, romantic relationships, paid work, and more. Indeed, in many adolescents' lives, religion occupies a quite weak and often losing position among these competing influences. Those teenagers for whom religious faith and practice are important tend to have religious lives constructed relationally and institutionally to intersect and overlap with other important aspects of their lives… For American adolescents more broadly, the structure of relational networks and institutional ties of both teens and their parents seems significantly correlated with the character of their religious faith and practice.

-p. 28

Religious and nonreligious identities thus tend to cluster around and be reinforced by close friendship networks… Again, religion in the lives of teenagers appears to be not simply restricted to time spent in religious congregations, but also flows in various ways and to different degrees into and through teens' relational networks.

-p. 58

All Quotations taken from Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Soul Searching, Part I- Balancing Conservative and Mainline Emphasis

For Christmas I was given a copy of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. The book is an assessment of the data compiled in an extensive study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill into the spiritual lives of American adolescents, and thus far it has definitely been good food for thought. I'm going to blog my way through this book a bit commenting on some interesting features. As an interesting side note, I also noticed today this poll about the religious beliefs of American in general.

I just finished reading one of the opening chapters which provides a basic overview of the data collected. The focus of the book is on all religious experience, but my particular interest as a youth director is the data concerning Conservative and Mainline Protestants. The church that I am part of is from a mainline denomination, but perhaps has a more conservative bent than many other churches in the denomination. The data collected shows some interesting divergences between the way teens view religion in these two camps that are somewhat enlightening for my experience.

First, there are some indications that teens from more "mainline" denominations feel less "spiritually vital." They are less likely to report feeling "close" to God than teens from conservative circles, significantly less likely to report feeling as though they have had a "spiritual experience," less likely to take part in "Bible studies" or "prayer groups," less active in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, less likely to strictly adhere to traditional Christian beliefs (such as the existence of angels or demons), and more likely to adopt non-traditional, occultic beliefs (such as reincarnation or communication with the dead). I don't want to exaggerate this- on a whole both conservative and mainline teens report pretty strong signs of spiritual vitality. However, this seems significantly more true of teens from a conservative background.

However, there are other signs that should make us cautious of fully embracing the conservative climate uncritically. Mainline teens are much more involved in "traditional" manifestations of the Christian faith- they are much more involved in Christian ceremonies and liturgy and much more likely to have participated in the sacraments (including public baptism). These historic aspects of the Christian experience are, it would seem, stressed much less in conservative circles, which is a somewhat ironic finding.

In terms of relationships there seems to also be a bit of a difference- Conservatives have more of a focus on the family relationship, are more prone to embracing a "Christian sub-culture" (with things such as listening to Christian music, going to Christian camps, etc.), and are more open or public in talking about their faith. More mainline Protestants tend to have more of a community focused relationship- more teens from these circles indicated that they had worked to restore a broken relationship, that they felt comfortable talking to adults in the church who were not their parents, and more teens from these communities report that they have approached their ministers for advice about serious issues in their lives. Ironically, perhaps, it is also the case that more teens from mainline denominations are willing to be critical of the adults in their churches and call them hypocritical (but still less than 10% of them say that a large portion of the adults in their church are hypocritical). Perhaps this is an indication that more involved relationships are more revealing of those adults who are authentic in what they believe.

My assessment is that there needs to be a balance here. Conservatives bring to the table a stronger emphasis on an active personal spiritual life. However, mainline groups are better at realizing that the personal spiritual life of an individual is only part of the story- there is also a significant communal aspect to the Christian faith- one that is embodied in community relationships and in partaking in traditional Christian expressions of the faith (such as the sacraments and liturgy). So as a youth director and a leader in a church that already attempts to balance these two camps, I need to set two equally important objectives: First, to foster personal spiritual growth in my youth. Second, to encourage community relationships not just among my youth but between my youth and the wider church they are a part of.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lessons From Luther for the Contemporary Church

Just finished reading an article by Carl Trueman (professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in Philly) on Martin Luther's doctrine of Justification in the book Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges edited by Bruce L. McCormack. Very insightful article that surveys the development within Luther's thought on the doctrine that became the centerpiece of his theology. The article also connects the doctrine to several other issues in Lutheran thought, especially Luther's doctrine of The Cross. Just briefly summarizing here: Luther's theology is full of paradoxes (he loved using them!) and challenges to recognize that Christian doctrine is decidedly counter to our human expectations.

Trueman closes out his discussion by addressing some ways in which Luther's theology has been misused by the contemporary Church. Top among these are an over-emphasis on "personal conversion"- Luther continued to hold a sacramental view of Baptism as the beginning of a believer's inclusion in Christ- and significantly neglecting the weight of the cross in Luther's theology and its practical significance for the Christian life- Luther strongly believed that the doctrine of the Cross implied that the Christian life would be full of suffering and be essentially "counter-cultural." With this in mind, Trueman describes how Luther serves to critique our contemporary Church environment in the States:

In giving horizons of expectation that look to suffering and servitude as providing Christian authenticity, Luther's theology also provides material for a deep critique of modern Western consumerism, where the very excess of goods and comfort generates boredom, acquisitiveness, an obsession with alleviating even the slightest discomfort, and a church that, at least in the materially more prosperous Christian suburbs of America, is often indistinguishable in attitude and posture from the wider culture to which it belongs- a cultural Protestantism of the kind that serves the purpose of baptizing the political and social aspirations of the West rather as the church of Luther's day sanctioned its own institutional greed by turning grace itself into a commodity. By placing the cross back at the center of authentic Christianity, Luther points an accusing finger at those who make too easy a marriage between the empowering ambitions of the societies in which we live and the true empowerment of Christ.

Oh, by the way, notice that entire quote is only two sentences!

Quote From: Carl Trueman, "Simul peccator et justus: Martin Luther and Justification," in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, Bruce L. McCormack, ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Prayer Reflecting Our Culture

'Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance.
We know Your Word says, 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done.
We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
We have killed our unborn and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self esteem.
We have abused power and called it politics.
We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.
We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.
Search us, Oh God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and Set us free. Amen!'

Thanks to Ben Witherington for posting this!

I appreciate this because it does an excellent job of pointing out that "freedom" too often becomes self-idolatry. I also appreciate it because though it comes from a conservative source and point of view, it certainly takes a few jabs at conservatives as well. Morality is not monopolized by one side of the aisle. In fact, both sides are morally bankrupt!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Redemptive Movements in Social Issues

This post might be epic, so brace yourselves…

Let me start by giving a little bit of context. For a long time, evangelicals have resisted any involvement in "social" or "environmental" issues because they were perceived as "liberal" issues. The Bible and its gospel, it was assumed, have nothing to do with material and "earthly" concerns. It is solely about spiritual redemption and forgiveness. I'll be honest, I see very little difference between this conception of the gospel and the ancient Gnostic heresies. Evangelicals are finally beginning to embrace these other issues thanks in no small part to Post-Modern Emergent Church thinkers who have forced the Evangelical community to recognize that material/physical concerns are every bit as much a part of the redemptive work of the gospel as the forgiveness of sins. So just as a side note, I cringe whenever I hear Evangelicals bashing Post-modernity or the Emerging Church not because I don't think there are things about both those movements that need to be criticized but because I think a blind rejection of them will likely lead to a repeating of the same mistakes that caused Evangelicals to be laughed out of the intellectual world and forced into a "Christian ghetto" after the rise of Modernism.

So… the basic story is that Evangelicals are now thinking about social and environmental issues. In discussing a session of a conference of Evangelical Scholars that I am at right now in New Orleans, a friend of mine who is a grad student at Wheaton College asked what I think is a very appropriate question. She asked what is different about Christian involvement in these issues versus secular involvement? It seems like, she argued and I think she is right, that our involvement in these issues should be very much a reflection of the gospel message. So how do we do that?

I think first of all that we have to frame the discussion by understanding what we mean by the gospel. I think the mistake of the past has been to adopt one metaphor among many used in the New Testament for redemption, namely a legal metaphor concerning the forgiveness of sins, and assume that is the entirety of the gospel. Its certainly a part of it, but I think it is not the end of the story. A personal friend and former professor of mine named Dave Malick gave a presentation at this conference this morning in which he rehashed something he used to teach us in his classes- a way of charting stories known as the "Mono-myth" or "Cyclical Story." It follows the four seasons and traces the fall from summer to winter and the redemptive movement (spring) out of this to return to summer. This cycle is I think what is captured by the gospel- in terms of the legal metaphor, we were created perfect, but have fallen via sin into death. But our guilt has been taken away by the substitutionary death of Jesus and therefore we rise again to life. In terms of the greater cycle of redemption, it seems that our sin carries with it the consequence of destroying the order of creation, bringing pain and misery, evil and brokenness into the world. Jesus has begun the work of redemption, a work that we continue and that he will finish at his return, of restoring the order of the world to the way things should be. Another conference session I sat in on today (actually, the one that sparked this conversation) given by a scholar named Daniel Block proved very helpful for me in understanding this. His belief is that humans were created to be representatives of God (I wholeheartedly agree), which implies a service to God. In fact, the context of man's creation in Genesis two implies a service to God in taking care of the garden. So in contrast to our very frequent understanding that the earth is here for us to use, we are here to care for the earth (this discussion revolved primarily around environmental issues). He begins to make this connection as well- the same language used of man's role in the garden is used to describe the Levite's role in the tabernacle/temple. I think we can extend, then, his argument beyond environmental issues and also argue that the people of God, as God's representatives, have a similar obligation to care for the other people of the world. All of this is in the context of a redemptive movement, of restoring the world to how it should be, of establishing God's kingdom. It is all supposed to be a reflection of the gospel.

Thus far, however, all I have accomplished is laying out a redemptive theology that encompasses more than the forgiveness of sins. I think if this means anything, though, it must be something that is practiced, something that we do. So the question on the table is how, practically, do we reflect this redemptive mindset in our engagement with social and environmental issues? How does the way that we go about addressing these issues reflect the idea that we are acting as agents of redemption in service to the Agent of redemption, Jesus Christ?

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Very, Very Brief History of Christian Thought

Prompted by a conversation with a friend (and roommate) of mine that got me thinking on this and then I couldn't get it out of my head, so I started writing… Also prompted because I think its important that we understand our heritage as Christians in terms of the history of where the things we believe came from.

Christianity starts out as "Judaism fulfilled"- a group mostly consisting of Jews and gentiles who were already sympathetic to Judaism who proclaimed Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of a messiah. They consider themselves part of Judaism and not a separate movement.

As persecution breaks out, and particularly after the Jewish revolt against Rome, Christianity and Judaism part ways until Christians find themselves as a separate entity in the eyes of the world. In response to charges of being a group of crazies from many Roman onlookers, Christianity begins to adopt more Greco-Roman philosophy (moving away from its Hebraic roots) to explain its doctrines. This eventually results in the emergence of classical theology. It also, however, results in the rise of many heresies that are based on Greco-Roman ideas applied to Christianity and taken too far. In response to these heresies, the Church develops a body of tradition (there isn't really a clear view on a canon of scripture yet) that becomes the Ecumenical Creeds (Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, etc). These creeds become the "cornerstone" of Christian orthodoxy in a sense- they are written to denounce heretical views and provide a basic core of doctrines that all Christians are expected to adhere to (things like the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, the incarnation, resurrection, ascension and return, etc.). There is also a strong sense of community in the creeds- one of the primary defenses against heresy is the declaration that all churches hold these doctrines, so heretics are proven wrong by their going against what the whole Church teaches. This focus on the universal (catholic) church kinda gets lost after the Reformation (and particularly after the rise of Baptist churches), but that's another story.

The church doesn't stay unified for very long. The Eastern church follows a much more "mystical" road and eventually comes to see tradition as king in theology (because there is only so much we can know propositionally when we are mystics). The Western church becomes more "logically" based- they want to write theology and not just mystically contemplate it (I'm really oversimplifying, I'm sure)- and so they see rational thinking and scripture as equal sources of theology with tradition in theory. In practice, the decrees of the Pope become more and more powerful and begin to shift in a more and more questionable direction, prompting the Reformation.

The Reformers are reacting against a Roman Church that sees itself as the source of true doctrine. So they put forth the idea of "sola scriptura"- that only in Scripture can we find true doctrine. This is the basic idea of Evangelicalism (which is Europe is more or less the catch phrase for all Protestants). However, scripture has to be interpreted for us to understand it, and this to some extend depends on philosophy, tradition, and other similar factors. This results in a lot of division among Protestants over doctrinal issues- Calvin vs. Arminius vs. Wesley, for instance. Or debates over infant baptism or church government structure. Eventually, after the Enlightenment and the rise of Modern Philosophy, many Protestants will claim that the scriptures are just a human writing and that we need to build our beliefs purely from a human, philosophical understanding. This gives rise to Liberalism. In response to this came Fundamentalism, a very radically conservative movement that tended to create large lists of things that were "fundamental" beliefs in order to try and brand all their enemies as "heretics" or "non-believers" who could be dismissed and ignored. Fundamentalists got very quickly laughed out of the academic world, started fighting with each-other over what qualified as "fundamental" and really disgraced themselves in a lot of ways. Modern Evangelicalism/Conservative Theology is an attempt to correct Fundamentalism by claiming the essential Protestant beliefs that it is primarily from scripture that we derive doctrine, but also acknowledging the role of philosophy, tradition, history, etc in interpreting scripture and being more open to a variety of viewpoints so long as those viewpoints can in some sense be derived from the Bible.

There are many other things that play into each of the viewpoints we have very briefly described here. This mainly just discusses their view on the authority or source of doctrine, though I have left the content of that doctrine alone for the most part. So in addition to these distinctions we could talk about individual denominational distinctions that are mostly based on their views of particular doctrinal issues. But I'll leave that alone for now...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Righteous Will Live by Faith

Very often when we think about what it means to "have faith" we think of this in terms of a very abstract, distant thing- a "belief" that we hold about God. Frequently having faith in Jesus means that we believe that he is real, or we believe (in a very abstract sense) that he is the savior who forgives our sins. Which we should, those are all good beliefs to hold. But James tells us that even the demons believe these things. So what separates holding these beliefs from faith?

In thinking about what Paul means when he discusses our faith, its important to look back at where he is drawing a lot of his information from in the Old Testament. Paul makes the statement that the righteous live by faith, a statement he derives from Habakkuk. How does Habakkuk understand faith. In a lengthy vision or prophecy, he describes the contrast between those who are wicked- those who serve themselves and trust in their own ability to accomplish what they want- and the righteous- those who trust in God to make everything right in the future, who are not violent or treacherous but are obedient to God, humble, and compassionate to others. It seems that from the standpoint of Habakkuk, faith is not an abstract belief in God or in a theological claim. Faith is much more personal than that. Faith is a guiding principle, a trust in God to accomplish what he says he will accomplish. As a result of this faith, we are certain kinds of people, we live a certain way. Without some-sort of response, faith is worthless. James and Paul will both make that point very clear in the New Testament. Faith is very much rooted in who we are and how we live, not in what we say we "believe."

So in light of this, here is a question to ponder: What is the source of our faith? What causes us to have faith or where do we get our faith from? What makes our faith "real," causes us to live as those with faith in God and not as those who put our trust in ourselves?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Taken from the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Can We Make an Idol of Freedom? (Edited and Revised)

It seems like at the heart of Christianity is the notion of a "kingdom." God is seen as King in Christianity and we are his servants working to fulfill his will "on earth as it is [already done] in heaven." This seems to fly in the face of the human freedom and individualism that we hold high in western society. Can we balance these two things? I am skeptical of this. In fact, I think that it might be very hard to distinguish individualism or personal freedom (speaking in an economic/political sense, not a moral sense) from self-idolatry. It seems like the "kingdom" mindset of Christianity demands a sense of collectivism- that we are seeking the greater good. We are advancing a cause bigger than ourselves. If that is the case, our own individual good is not as important, it has to be subservient to another cause. So demands for economic or political freedom seem to be contrary to our role as Christians.

I don't mean to imply by this that economic or political freedoms are wrong. But I do mean to imply that they are secondary, from a Christian standpoint, to the greater obligations that we have. So for instance, if we can argue that we have a genuine obligation as Christians to care for the less privileged members of our society, to ensure that they are provided for, then our economic freedom is subservient to this obligation. That doesn't mean we necessarily have to completely sacrifice economic freedom, but we also cannot demand freedom absolutely. Likewise, if we have an obligation as Christians to promote justice in this world, then our political liberties are subservient to that demand for justice. This does not mean we become slaves of the state. But we do sacrifice our own prerogatives for the good of others when necessary.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that many Christians feel like we can or should demand these liberties or freedoms absolutely- everything else must be sacrificed to preserve freedom. I think that this very quickly leads us to make an idol of our freedom, perhaps even to make an idol of ourselves. Any thoughts?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hope For the Poor

I think that Jesus is intentionally referencing Isaiah 61 in the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount. Isaiah 61 talks about the promised restoration of those who have been loyal to God despite their nation's disloyalty. They are the oppressed and neglected poor of Israel, but God promises them justice and says he will make them special bearers of his image, turning them into the leaders of his restored Kingdom on Earth. Jesus in the sermon on the mount picks up very similar themes- he is essentially declaring that in his kingdom the "hope to the poor/oppressed" will be found!

Behind both of these messages is a recognition that part of what it means to be loyal to God is to recognize that every person in some sense carries the "image of God." Unlike many pagan societies who saw their political and religious leaders as the only ones who represented God, the only ones with the divinely inspired ability to express God's will to the rest of the world, the God of the Bible has bestowed on all mankind his image (remember, the Hebrew word "Adam" is not just the name of the first man, it means "mankind"). Though people are predominantly idolatrous, giving up their place as the representative of God to serve false gods, there is still a sense in which we all represent God and his character. So there is a common dignity that we are obligated to give to everyone, especially those that the rest of society has forgotten or neglected. We as those who follow God loyally are called to be the ones who care for the homeless, fight for justice, work to feed the hungry. Certainly we need to care about and be involved in those sorts of things. But on an even more immediate level, we are to be the ones who make an effort to reach out to and care for the people we see everyday that everyone else seems to forget about or push around. The guy who gets his lunch tray knocked over or his books strewn across the hall. The little freshman that the captain of the varsity squad wants to push around. If we truly believe that all people carry the image of God then we are going to stand up for and reach out to these people.

I'm not claiming this is necessarily an easy thing to do. Neither did Jesus or Isaiah. But if we say we believe one thing and do another we are creating in ourselves a contradiction. As Jesus goes on to say in his sermon, its as if we are a "light" that doesn't "give light."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Out of Egypt have I called my son."

So I heard someone make a joke once that pastors always have three lessons at a given service- the one they planned to give, the one they actually give, and the one that afterwards they realize they should have given.

I started out last night in my lesson by reading the above phrase from Hosea 11:1 and saying "this is going to be very important, remember this." When I got home I realized I never really tied that in at the end… So here is what should have been the ending of this lesson:

This phrase from Hosea is used by Matthew to talk about Jesus. When Jesus was born the "acting" king of the Jews (a rather rotten fellow named Herod) heard about him and was extremely worried Jesus would grow up and try to take his throne. So Herod orders all the children about Jesus age killed. But Jesus' family gets word of that and flees to Egypt for safety. When Matthew tells us that they came back, he quotes Hosea (who was talking about Israel coming out of slavery in Egypt, not Jesus fleeing Herod). But the quote brings out something very significant. Jesus is called by God, just as God called to Adam when he was hiding from him in the garden, and called Abraham to be blessing to all mankind, and as Hosea said called Israel out of Egypt to be his people, his representatives to the world. So this makes it all the more significant that this "calling" doesn't stop with Jesus. Jesus calls twelve disciples, and then tells them to go out and call more disciples until the whole world has heard the call to return to mankind's original intention and be God's representatives on earth, his "image-bearers." And that is what our task is, to continue the "calling" of God's people.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What Does It Mean to be Human?

Brief review of what I talked about last week with the youth:

Genesis puts a lot of emphasis on saying that man was made in the image of God. What that means is that man was meant to do the sorts of things God would do, particularly to rule the earth the way God would rule it. However, Adam does not complete this mission. He instead puts his loyalty in other things (and take special note that these things are not necessarily bad in and of themselves) besides God. And this idolatry leads to all kinds of evil spreading throughout the world. For the most part, men have followed in Adam's footsteps. However, Jesus Christ is said to be a second Adam, one who keeps his loyalty where it belongs and makes a way for us to follow him and be the kinds of people we were meant to be.

A unique aspect of our culture from a historical standpoint is the emphasis we put on individuals. Most cultures throughout history have been interested in how their entire society is doing in any given way (economically, politically, spiritually, etc). In modern American society, we seem intently focused on how each individual person is doing and most of the time forget that we are all part of a bigger thing than ourselves. So while this issue is certainly something worth addressing on an individual basis, I want to start by asking a bigger question. In what ways does our society seem to be following in the footsteps of Adam? What are the idols of our society? What are we more loyal to than God?

Then, the more personal question (which I'm not going to make you answer publically unless you really want to), are you personally any different from the rest of our society? Do the idols of our society hold your loyalty as well?

New Chapter For This Blog

I have just recently begun a position as the Youth Director of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Dora, Alabama. We have a great group of youth and I am really excited about leading and teaching them. I have also decided that I am going to begin using this blog to extend my teaching by posting more thoughts and reflections on what I am teaching and hopefully stirring up some discussion or conversation amongst the youth… assuming they will look at what I post here...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Economics and Ethics

Had a discussion with a friend who is a staunch libertarian that caused a few things to click for me that have been rattling around for a while.

I studied economic and political philosophy for a bit before I began studying theology. Something that interested me about both economic and political philosophy is that they have at least at some level an underlying question that is about ethics. Both are, in some foundational sense, concerned with the question "how can society best provide for all its members?" We can see this historically in political philosophy in the development of feudalism in the middle ages: a society that was falling apart and facing great danger developed a system designed around the idea of protection for its members.

In economic terms, this question is explicitly in the mind of many of the founders of modern economic thought. Adam Smith, for instance, when he wrote The Wealth of Nations was certainly trying to answer this question. And he believed that answer lay in human self-interest. He believed that self-interested humans will always make economic decisions that are "in their best interest" and that allowing this process to freely play out would result in the most efficient economy, which to him meant the one that best provided for the needs of society's members. In other words, he felt that a free market was the most ethical system not because of concerns about property rights or about the authority of the government but because he felt that the end result of a free market was the best provision of peoples' needs.

So in my discussion with my libertarian friend, he argued that the free market was the best system. So far, we are in agreement. He then argued that government action like "The New Deal" were bad and were messing up the marketplace. This is where I begin to disagree. I think that a free market is ideal not as an ends but as a means to an outcome that is best for society. But because the free market is a means and not an ends in itself, I do not believe that when the market fails we are required to sit and wait on the market to fix itself (in the name of preserving a free market). Lets take the historical example of the Great Depression. Initially, preserving a free market was the policy of choice. However, three years later when unemployment was at a record 35% with no sign of getting any better, it seems fairly apparent that the preservation of a free market is no longer in societies best interest. Letting people starve for the sake of preserving the free market is of dubious morality, I think. So I think that the government was obligated at that point (and maybe should have reached this conclusion earlier) to step in and act in a way that relieved the strain on the country to provide for its own peoples' needs. In that case, the New Deal was economically and ethically an advisable strategy.

In a nutshell, this is what I'm arguing. Economic philosophy is not about making efficient markets or making the most profit. Sure, those things are products of good economic philosophy. However, the real motivation behind economic philosophy is an ethical one- the greatest good for society as a whole, the greatest provision of the needs and wants of societies' members. As such, I would argue with the general consensus of economists in the western tradition that free markets are usually the best way to accomplish this goal. However, I would strongly differ from libertarians in that I think the market is only a tool, a means to an ends. So when the tool doesn't work, you fix it or scrap it for a new one. Likewise, when the market fails, I believe it is acceptable for the government to intervene and attempt a solution that better provides for society.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Extreme Sports and Deeper Living

An article I read the other day may force me to revise a little bit of what I said in an earlier post.

Basically, the article deals with the psychology of those who participate in "extreme sports" or high risk athletic events. The study is very narrow in its definition of these events, concentrating on those activities that require a high degree of skill. The aspect that interests me is that this showed several "character developing" effects. For instance, two specific effects outlined by the study were that participation in these activities developed the athlete's courage and their sense of humility. However, I'm sure other similar effects could be seen by different participants. The general idea seems to be that participating in high risk, attention and skill intensive activities can contribute to developing positive character traits because the experience itself alters your view of life in some way (namely, by helping you realize the fragility of it through your experience of facing fear). That would suggest that such an activity might be more "deep" than I may have given it credit for in my earlier post.

However, I will still maintain that thrill seeking is not "real living." This study differs from other psychological studies into the effects of extreme sports in that it defines them as things that involve a high degree of skill. In other words, you have to be a very highly trained athlete to participate. This is not a tourist bungee jumping or sky diving. Those types of activities, when studied, seem to have similar effects to a drug high- a purely chemical "rush" that leaves the person momentarily elated, but certainly not better off in terms of things that really matter.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Greg Boyd and "The Patriot's Bible"

I highly recommend you read this post from Greg Boyd. He decries the dangerous and idolatrous connection of Christianity to American Nationalism found in the recently published "Patriot's Bible." For more thoughts, look at this post.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

An Alternative Take on Free Will

My apologies to anyone who reads this and finds it too technical. This is a more "philosophical" post than most that I have written lately, and its going to read more like a paper than a blog post.

A while back I wrote a post about the tension between free-will and determinism and the seemingly negative consequences both sides of this debate take us to when followed to their logical conclusions. Essentially, it seems to me that determinism logically implies a radical form of skepticism, and at the same time libertarian freedom seems to imply atheism and a lack of causality to the universe. Neither road seems particularly desirable, but I was then unaware of any potential solution.

Lately I have been reading quite a bit on ancient philosophy. Two thoughts have been in the background of this reading. First, I have often wondered if there is an inconsistency in ancient philosophy over the issue of free will. Most ancient philosophers conception of deity (I'm using this term loosely) is one of a completely transcendent deity whose being produces by emanation the world. This is Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" or Neo-Platonism's "Perfect Being." Many of these concepts have been adapted by Christians to form the ideas of Classical Theism- an omnipotent, omniscient God who transcends space and time. In modern terms we consider these ideas to imply determinism. However, in the ancient world, they firmly believed in free will. Is there a logical problem in the ancient systems here?

Another thing that has been in the background of my reading has been a belief that the questions asked by Modernist philosophers off track. For a more thorough discussion of what I think on this issue, look over this post. Basically, though, I think that Modern philosophy, which has replaced the ancient concept of "telos" with scientism, is self-defeating and absurd. Thus, I find the ancient concept of "telos"- that all things are striving toward an innate purpose within them, to be a very appealing concept for explaining not only the regularity of our scientific observations but also avoiding the absurdity of naturalistic scientism.

I think that this concept of "telos" has answered my first question about the consistency of ancient philosophy and provided a solution to the free will dilemma.

In a nutshell, here is how the concept of "telos" works: Everything has a "purpose" or a "goal" that is innate in it. This goal stems from the defining characteristics of the thing- a tree has the "telos" of being a tree- growing tall, sprouting limbs, making fruit, etc. If it doesn't do these things, we consider something to be wrong with the tree- it is defective, it doesn't do what trees do. This idea of innate "purpose" applies to everything, including humans. We have a "goal" of being a human, and maybe more specifically of being a particular kind of human. Its in our "DNA," so to speak, that we will be a certain way. And so subconsciously all our lives we work toward that end because that is what we are meant to be. It is our "telos." As a side note: from a more modern perspective, this is a very similar concept to Heidegger's Dasein (Being).

So far, this sounds very much like determinism. And in a way, it is a form of determinsim/compatibalism. However, I think there is a crucial difference from the more standard versions of compatibalism that prevents us from falling into the trap of skepticism that I have discussed earlier.

This "telos" is internal and subconscious. I don't consciously set out to be a human, I am one. I don't consciously decide that I will like ice-cream, I do. So our "telos," without our thinking about it, sets parameters on what we do and do not do. I don't breathe through gills underwater because as a human, that is simply something I do not do. And I don't eat other people because subconsciously without even having to think about it I believe that to be morally wrong as a human. Yet, specific actions are not really laid out by my "telos." Whether I will walk across the street or not is not really defined by my "telos." Either walking across or staying on this side of it are perfectly consistent with my being a human and being the kind of human that I am.

Lets use DNA as a metaphor again. DNA may define the kind of species an organism is and may define many particular traits of that organism. But it doesn't lay out every action the organism takes. Two oak trees may have very different layouts of their branches. Two children with the same parents may have very different traits. Even identical twins can have drastically different personalities. The cloned sheep Dolly doesn't do everything exactly the same way its clone-partner does, its life is somewhat different.

And so my "telos" may set parameters of who I am and what kind of person I am, but it also leaves a lot open to choice. Exactly how much so may be debatable, and I'm not going to get into that. But this means that ancient philosophers could be consistent in believing in a transcendent deity and in free will. The transcendent deity may impart "telos" on creation, a deterministic act, but this "telos" does not govern every individual action, it simply sets a course to be followed. Hence, I think the theist can consistently embrace both a belief that God ordains how the world will operate and that we participate in this freely. Thus, we neither have to be skeptics or atheists, nor do we have to be hard determinists or radical libertarians.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thought- flying rebel flags on Independence Day is a little out of place...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Musical Journey Toward Deeper Living

On my way to a pool job today my rather eccentric boss (I love you David) was flipping between radio stations and for a while we landed on what I assume was a country station. Two of the songs that we heard back to back started me thinking and that eventually led to this.

The first song was "Live Like You Were Dying" by Tim McGraw. The verses paint a picture of a man who is dying. When asked what he did with what he believed to be his final days, the answer we get is several things that I found disappointing. Primarily, though it seems that most of his answers have to do with simple thrill seeking- mountain climbing, sky diving, bull riding, etc. The point of the song is to say that when you are on the verge of death you "really live"- you do what seems most valuable despite whatever risks might be involved. Somehow, though, I feel like this must mean something deeper than just seeking thrills.

The second song was "Who Says You Can't Go Home" by Bon Jovi. I found this progression ironic- the first song proclaims that to really experience life you have to get out and enjoy all the thrills life might have to offer. The second song starts out with someone who has in essence done just that and says "all I want to do is go back home." There comes a point when chasing thrills looses its thrillingness and becomes empty. Is that just the nature of the beast or is that an indication that chasing thrills is not really what living is all about? Is there something deeper to life?

I think there is, though I sometimes have a very hard time expressing what that might be. Certainly we all want to "do something we love." Certainly we all want to "enjoy life" and "live life to the fullest." But when we say those expressions, what do we mean? Do we just mean going out and doing things we might not otherwise do, collecting experiences that we might one day be able to tell stories about? Maybe. But honestly, as much fun as I have had in various experiences- as much as I enjoy rock climbing, as much of a thrill as I get out of rappelling down a cliff face or white water rafting, as enjoyable and relaxing as I find sailing- when I stop and think about my favorite memories, those aren't usually the ones that come to mind. Its instead usually a late night talk with a good friend, a week spent working for an orphanage in a developing nation, helping a friend or a family member move, teaching, etc. Maybe I'm just more of a nerd than I like to think I am, but to me these things seem much more meaningful. They seem like experiences that really matter. And so to me, they seem to much more fulfill the meaning of "living life to the fullest."

Later in the day we switched to a Christian music station. I categorically despise Christian music, for the record. Its cheesy, its mostly superficial, its too formulaic, and its just terrible art (with a handful of exceptions, like the song I'm about to mention). I'm ashamed to be associated with it most of the time. However, one song played while we were listening that stood out to me because, for one thing, it was musically appealing in some respects, and for another it was exceptionally honest lyrically. The song was "What Do I Know of Holy?" by Addison Road. The song very poignantly points out the emptiness of much of our "spirituality" by asking what it really means for God to be who we say he is. If God is greater than anything else, what point of reference do we really have to even begin to comprehend that? When we say things, are we just saying them because we think they are supposed to be said, or because we actually understand what they mean and so mean what we are saying? I think too often, it is the former and not the latter. Now, while this message has a context particularly related to Christian worship (and I think the singer is intentionally targeting the emptiness of a lot of Christian worship, maybe even alluding to some other bands in the industry), I think a broader principle can be derived that hits our topic more directly. Often, when we say things about life, we say them without understanding them. We don't think through what it means to "really live," we jump to the conclusion that this means something our culture is conditioning us to think it means. Sure, you can have a lot of fun when you go Rocky Mountain climbing. But I guarantee if that becomes a "real living" experience, it will not be because of the mountain so much as the people you climbed it with, the conversations you had, the camaraderie that was built, etc. So when we talk about what it means to "really experience life," my challenge is to ask how deep are we thinking? Are we looking for thrills or are we looking for meaningful, lasting experiences?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Is Socialism the Natural Economic System of Christianity?

In a conversation with a friend about my previous post "The De-Humanizing Effects of Mega-Corporations" this question was posed to me. I said I would think on it and write some thoughts later.

My initial reaction is to say yes. But on further consideration, that is far too simple.

If we just took the Old Testament law, the answer would be a resounding yes. There are some very definite socialist prescriptions in the law. There are provisions for keeping the gap between rich and poor to a minimum such as the cancellation of debts every seven years or the returning of all land to its original owners every fifty years (the year of jubilee). There are commands that effectively establish a welfare state, even going so far as having an effective welfare tax in the form of requiring farmers to leave parts of their fields un-gleaned each harvest so the poor could gather food for themselves. The Torah without a doubt makes a significant point of making sure everyone in the society is provided for and makes this not just an ethical obligation for charity but a legal obligation that the state was supposed to enforce, which certainly seems socialist in its basic underpinnings (though maybe less "sophisticated" in its structure than modern socialist states). I think its important to make a distinction here- these prescriptions could be considered socialist, but I would say this is different from a "communist" state- individual land ownership still existed in ancient Israel, there was not collective ownership of property.

While these laws existed in the Torah, it doesn't seem that this part of the Torah was given much attention in ancient Israel's history. We have no recorded instances of the Year of Jubilee being enacted, for instance. And the prophetic writings condemn Israel repeatedly for failing to care for the poor. In fact, social and economic justice are apparently so neglected that in several places the prophets record God as declaring to Israel in essence (my paraphrase here) "I have stopped up my ears to your prayers and the smell of your sacrifices makes me want to vomit." We can take a couple things from this. First, it seems that while the Torah was socialist, it would appear in practice Israel was not. Second, social/economic concerns seem to be extremely important to the God of Judaism and Christianity. So far, that seems to add up to a socialist norm for Christianity.

The New Testament makes this a little more complicated, however. There is still a strong concern for providing for the lower rungs of society, and even a civil rights movement like note the New Testament declarations that all are equal in Christ- slave, free, Greek, Jew, men, women and every other potentially opposing category are nullified in the Church community. However, there is a striking difference. Whereas in the Old Testament the ethical concern for the poor was a legal obligation written in the nation's "constitution" in the New Testament the church is not a political entity of the same nature. There are certainly political implications to the Christian message, don't get me wrong. Rome in large part persecuted Christianity because Christians refused to worship Caesar and instead acknowledged Jesus as "Lord"- the same term Romans used to pay homage to Caesar. However, unlike in ancient Israel where the Torah was the governing law of the nation, Christianity is an underground group from its conception. So while Christians do things to care for the poor, I think it would be better to consider them a charity group than a socialist government, at least in their early years.

However, Christianity does not stay an underground group. Eventually, it rises to become a very dominant political force in Europe. Over the course of this history, two basic "philosophies" of looking at the world develop in Christianity. One comes from Augustine, the other from Thomas Aquinas. Augustine's philosophy is essentially libertarian. He sees the state as there to protect its people, but his view of human depravity is such that he does not think it can accomplish any "good" (which would include providing people's material needs), and so it’s the role of the church to provide for the poor as a charity. Aquinas has a very different take. He things that the state can do material good, and that society as a whole has a responsibility to take care of the poor and oppressed and neglected who form its lower tiers, a much more socialist (or at least welfare state-ish) position. Part of the difference between these views may have to do with the time periods they wrote. Augustine wrote during the Roman Empire when Christianity was still not a key political power and "paganism" still abounded in Europe (some would say not much has changed…). Aquinas wrote much later, after the fall of the Roman Empire and during the golden age of Church "domination" of Europe. Their different historical situations may have contributed to the differences in their philosophical views on the question of societies obligation to the poor. However, there are other underlying philosophical differences. For metaphysical reasons, I am more inclined to agree with Thomas Aquinas, and because I think his system is logically coherent, to also adopt his view that society can and should take care of its people. I'm not sure I would say I am a complete socialist- I think the markets should be as free as they can be. But I also think that society should be able to provide basic "needs" for everyone in the society- food, shelter, clothing, education, etc. I think the earliest Capitalist thinkers felt the same way, but they believed a free market could provide all these things for all the members of a society (and would therefore be the best way to do that). History and experience I think shows us that this is a bit too optimistic, and so I think some government intervention is required to fill in the gaps.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The De-Humanizing Effect of Mega-Corporations

Lately I have been working on a crew that installs above ground pools. It’s a great summer job for college kids! The other day as we were driving between job sites, a thought occurred to me. There are a great many jobs that exist that are not things anyone would aspire to be.

Think about kids dreaming of what they want to be when they grow up: either something glamorous, like an astronaut or a movie star, or something "noble," like a doctor or a teacher. We can think of lots of other vocations that fit under those categories, and as we get older, we often expand our definitions of these categories and add new ones of "aspired-to" vocations.

Yet there are a number of careers that we would never aspire to. We might end up working in such a career, but never because we set out to do that. We simply fell into it and never got out. Careers like working on an assembly line or as a greeter at Walmart. But why do we consider these to be careers that are undesirable, things we would never set out to do? What makes other careers more honorable, things we would aspire to?

This may be one of the great ironies of capitalism from a philosophical viewpoint. Capitalism begins with the idea of ownership- if we own our own means of production, we are going to work in "creative" ways to promote our livelihood. The idea is that we have a vested interest in our own success, and so we are willing to put forth effort to achieve that success, especially when driven by competition. The theory of capitalism is that individuals driven to succeed will develop new ideas, new means of production, and the most efficient use of resources and thus create the most robust economy. But this theory developed in a day when markets where much smaller and more localized, when the internet and mega-corporations were not even on the horizon. I think in a twist of irony, the progression of capitalist economics, built on the idea of ownership, has in effect destroyed that idea.

Lets say I own a local shoe store. Or that I work for a locally owned shoe store, either will work. I have a vested interest in the success of that store, I have "ownership" by which I mean a stake in its success. So I work to make the store succeed (per capitalist philosophy). But lets paint a different scenario. I work in the shoe department at Walmart. I find it hard to argue that I actually have any stake in the success of this store. The store is simply too big for me to make an impact anymore. If I do poorly, I loose my job and the store moves on, not even feeling a bump in its progress from my failure. Even if the particular store I work for does fail and close, the corporation is so large it will hardly notice. Likewise, if it does well I cannot claim any sort of responsibility for that really. My contribution is simply insignificant. So the concept of ownership is completely meaningless in this scenario. I don't have a stake here, I am just a meaningless "tool" in the eyes of the corporation.

In both scenarios, we might argue that I have a concern for my own personal success, but I think in each case this means something completely different. In the first, my personal success and the success of my business go hand in hand. So things like efficiency and competitiveness and ingenuity will mark both. In the second scenario, however, my personal success is something completely different from the success of the company I work for. My personal success becomes a matter of mere survival- do I still have a means of sustenance?

This is not meant to be a rant against Walmart, by the way. I will admit I am not particularly fond of the place, but I'm not a Walmart-hater.

Here is what I am really getting at- the reason the concept of ownership is so important to capitalist economics is philosophical. Capitalism developed out of enlightenment philosophy, which is particularly humanist. Self-determination is at the heart of the capitalist system. We are more likely to take the initiative in our own lives if we feel we have self-determination, and for capitalism this is derived from the concept of ownership. If we own (or in the case of the worker in the local shop who doesn't actually own it, have a significant stake in) the means of our own success, we will work to bring that success about.

So the loss of the concept of ownership in the wake of corporations too big for the individuals who are part of them to matter is ironic on two levels. First, on a purely economic level it undermines the very foundation of the system that brought these corporations about. But secondly, on a philosophical level, it attacks the self-determinism and humanism of the very philosophy that brought that system about. It in essence erodes the role of individuals as real "humans" in the sense of having control of the shape of their own lives. They are instead merely pawns swept along in the wake of a much larger creature.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Economic Irony?

Let me say at the outset of this that I am not a communist. Keep that in mind, it will be important in a minute.

I spent a good amount of time studying economics before I moved to Birmingham to study theology. I was a pretty strong advocate of the modified classical/monetarist economics employed by the Federal Reserve under Chairman Greenspan and now Bernake. However, the more I have seen about the current economic crisis the more I am questioning the traditional models and ways of viewing economics.

In the classical system, the economy manages itself by money-flow. This is supply and demand at work- if more people demand a good, then more money flows to that market and the supply increases to match the demand. So the greatest way to encourage economic growth is to expand the amount of spending that is going on. This has to be carefully monitored though- we can't just dump money into the system, all that will do is create inflation with little or no growth. To keep this balance, the Fed plays a back and forth game with the money supply by buying and selling bonds to the major banks, thus controlling how much money they have on hand to loan out.

And there lies where the irony begins. Our managing of the economy has been based very largely on the credit industry. We depend on banks to give out loans that stimulate growth. If inflation is getting out of hand, we try and cut back on the amount of loans banks make. If the economy is slowing down, we try to encourage them to make more loans. So our growth is sustained by credit!

What we seem to be realizing now is that this pattern isn't sustainable in the long-run. What has happened in our economy is that we have had a huge "credit bubble" that has collapsed. The bubble was sustained not just by lots of housing loans, but by loans from bank to bank and credit agency to credit agency. Then, to make things really complicated, we turned those loans into "securities" and sold them to other agencies, who bought them using more loans. Now the bubble bursts. My company fails because others can't pay back their loans, which means I can't pay back my loans, which means another company can't pay back theirs, and the cycle goes on. Since all this growth was based on money that no one actually had, the current collapse creates a massive domino effect in the order of a few hundred billion dollars!

So why is this ironic? The very thing that we have been relying on to sustain our economic growth is now the very thing that is causing a massive economic fall-out.

Now, in a sense, that's how a bubble usually works. An industry booms for a while, and then something goes awry and that industry collapses. What makes this especially interesting, though, is that its not a single industry. Its our whole economic system that is being shaken.

Now is where what I said at the beginning is going to be important again. I see basically two options on the "capitalist" system: The first is the classical option- do nothing and let the economy fix itself. The Great Depression is the main counter-example to this method. And, if we did opt for this method, my prediction is the economic collapse would become very wide-spread (remember, this started in the finance sector, which is what the rest of the economy depends on. If it goes, it will take down every other major industry with it), with the end result being a revolution that will probably transform the west into a communist society. In other words, if we do nothing, we will see exactly what Marx predicted come about.

The second option is to try and salvage the economy through a "bail-out" (what we have been doing)- following the New Deal model, in other words. The problem is, in the long run this just perpetuates the problem. This problem exists because our economy is built on credit, which means it can't absorb the shock of a market failure. Dumping more money into the system to try and stimulate more growth is only adding to that problem. So in the long-run, we haven't gotten anywhere. We may temporarily avoid catastrophe, but then we still have the same root problem- an economy built on credit with no shock-absorbers and no way to sustain growth without more credit.

I'm not sure if this second option eventually leads us back into the first. I think that is the worst case-scenario: we get to the point where we literally cannot do anymore, so we have to do nothing. I don't foresee that happening in the major Western powers anytime soon, but there are concerns it might happen (or already be happening) in developing nations that are taking a hit from all of this.

The ultimate solution is going to require some sort of radical change to the underlying economic structure of our system, I think. I'm not sure how we get there (at least without it being a very painful transition). But we have to move away from a dependence on credit and adapt to a more long-term sustainable system. I am not saying we do away with all credit. Credit is important in a lot of ways. People generally buy a house or a car via credit. I (along with most other students I know) am at least partially financing my education through credit. However, what this economic crisis is showing is that we cannot depend on credit, so we have to adapt our system in some way to not be dependent on it (which may mean a fundamental change in the way we manage the economy). What that probably looks like is a much smaller economy on a whole and maybe much more simple life-styles. And for a lot of industries that simply cannot be sustained without credit (for instance, in a lot of ways, the medical industry), there may be a need for socialization.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Free-Will Dilemma: Skepticism or Atheism?

Probably the most hotly debated question in Christian theology, and perhaps in philosophy in general, is the question of human free-will. There are essentially two options- Determinism and Libertarianism. Determinism claims that all things are determined by some "external" factor- be it the natural laws of the universe that govern how things physically interact or the will of God that decrees how all things will be. Libertarianism claims the opposite- no external force such as this compels us to the decisions we make or the actions we take. The implications of these two views is what interests me and I think leads to a rather unsettling dilemma.

I have previously argued that determinism leads to a radical skepticism. If all things are determined, this includes my thoughts and beliefs. This raises an important question: what reason do I have to trust that my beliefs are in any way valid or true if they have been determined for me? If determinism is true, I cannot even objectively wrestle with this question, my thoughts and conclusions concerning it are also going to be determined! Thus, it seems that this leads to a radical skepticism in which I have no reason to trust my mental faculties to tell me anything true.

Some determinists try to argue for compatibalism, which is an attempt to preserve some semblance of free-will under determinism. In essence, compatibalism argues that our actions are "free" if they coincide with our desires. This is primarily a solution employed in Christian theology to answer the question of how we can be held morally responsible for our actions under determinism, but some thinkers attempt to employ it to answer the question of skepticism as well, claiming that if our thoughts coincide with our desires, we have freely reached our beliefs and thus can trust them. There seems to be an underlying philosophical problem for this solution however, namely that it only pushes our problem back one step. Desires are not self-existing entities anymore than thoughts are. They too originate from somewhere, and if their source is external (ie, God shapes our desires in some sense), then we seem to gotten no closer to a solution to the problem of skepticism. If our desires are not externally determined (we determine them, in other words), then we are now libertarians and not determinists.

Libertarianism has its own set of philosophical problems. At the heart of these issues is the question of whether or not we can have any sort of "neutral decisions." In other words, do we really have equally available options when we make a decision or are other things influencing us in our decision? On face value, it seems that we obviously do not- there are always things that influence us or our desires. So to say our options in any decision really are equally viable, we have to say we have the ability to go against our strongest inclination. If this is even logically consistent (wouldn't the final choice we make turn out to be our strongest inclination?), then it seems to throw out causality (at least in terms of our decisions, but this probably has a wider scope as well). Once we have denied causality, however, we find ourselves on a quick slope to a form of atheism in which there are no reasons for anything that happens (interestingly, this form of atheism seems to also have to deal with a form of skepticism). This doesn't seem to be a viable option for a Christian theist.

However, if we say that our free decisions are not neutral, they are influenced by external factors, then it becomes very unclear how they are actually free. It would seem that external cause(s) are "causing" us to make the decisions we make, leading us back to a form of determinism, and thus to face the issue of skepticism again. So we seem stuck in a dilemma between skepticism and atheism (combined with another form of skepticism), neither a particularly appealing option.

This post is not meant to be a capitulation to skepticism or atheism or a throwing up in the air of my hands to give up thinking about these issues. I am sure solutions to these problems exist on both sides (I am certain I am not the only person to think about these issues), but I am unsure what they might be or how solid they actually are. So really this is meant to be a call for some sort of dialogue to be opened up.

Clarification: The dilemma it seems is going to require one of two solutions: either (1) a way out of skepticism for the determinist, or (2) a definition of libertarian freedom that allows for causation.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Irrationality of Naturalism

The enlightenment and Modernist philosophy have posed a dramatic philosophical challenge to Christianity, with, for the first time in philosophical history, atheism becoming a dominant presupposition. Indeed, atheism seems the inevitable conclusion of Modernist philosophy. The problem, however, is that this results in a complete logical absurdity.

Modernist philosophy replaces the ancient concept of "telos" (the idea that all things are striving to fulfill a purpose) with naturalistic determinism: the regularity of the universe is explained by set natural laws. If we follow the naturalist thought process, this eliminates all supernatural existences- God, human souls, angels, etc.- and reduces us to a completely material universe governed by the physical laws. If this state of things is correct, then all things are completely deterministic. Under naturalism, this must also include the activities of our minds, which are natural entities. Thus our thoughts, desires, beliefs, etc. are all determined by the natural laws of the physical universe.

This description of our mental state results in a radical skepticism. If my thoughts and beliefs are merely the products of physical reactions that have been determined since the moment the universe came into existence then what reason do I have to trust that these beliefs are in any way sound? It does not seem that such a reason exists, and even if I could come up with such a reason that conclusion would also be reached only because of chemical reactions over which I had no control. This eventually results in an absurdity because even my beliefs in naturalism or the deterministic nature of the universe would also be subject to the same criticism. Ultimately then, I not only have no basis for knowing anything (the usual claim of skepticism), I actually do not know anything under naturalistic determinism.

This is certainly not an argument for Christianity. In fact, this could be used just as well by a pantheist mystic as by a Christian. What this does establish to me, though, is that if we want to maintain any claims to knowledge then we cannot embrace a fully naturalistic worldview. Even if we scrap naturalism, though, the question remains whether the modernist paradigm of science (which has an anti-supernatural balance and attempts to explain natural phenomenon according to set scientific laws) can be maintained without a naturalist conclusion. In other words, can we maintain Descartes dualism and claim that the natural world operates by fixed laws but somehow our minds are able to escape those laws (despite being attached to bodies that are subject to them)? This seems to be a very flimsy solution at best.

Instead, I think that we have to return to a more ancient way of looking at the universe and reinterpret Aristotle's concept of "telos." Christianity should have no problem adopting the idea that all things are working toward accomplishing an ultimate purpose. This idea also explains the regularity that science observes without moving toward a conclusion that is completely naturalistic and irrational.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The "Offense of the Gospel" and Christian Involvement in Politics

A thought that occurred to me earlier:

The early church was heavily persecuted by both Jews and Romans because of strongly political implications to its message. To the Jews, the concept of the messiah had long been a political concept about freedom from their oppressors and an exaltation of their nation as the "people of God." Christianity strongly countered that message by preaching about a spiritual Kingdom of God that included both Jews and Gentiles. Paul's taking the gospel to the Gentiles made this essentially anti-nationalist message (not anti-Jewish, but opposed to the sentiment in Judaism that held their people in a particularly high esteem as the only people of God) much more vocal. Essentially, the Jewish reaction against Christianity was largely motivated by Jewish nationalist sentiments, a very political motive.

Likewise, the Romans had a very political reason for opposing Christianity. The Roman empire was held together by a common bond of loyalty to Caesar as King/God. Early Christians refused to submit to this loyalty because they held Jesus to be the only King/God. This must have been greatly insulting to the Roman political order- not only were they refusing submission and loyalty to Rome, the Christians were claiming that someone who had been crucified by Rome was greater than the Emperor. So Roman political pride was also offended by Christianity, and they too had largely political reasons for opposing the church.

So what can this teach us? It seems to hold a political implication- loyalty to a state can never rise above loyalty to Christ in Christian thinking. Protestants are quick to jump on this in criticism of Catholics. Indeed, the medieval Papacy probably did usurp the loyalty it should have given to God. However, I have heard a good number of Evangelicals in this country preach on behalf of a past President and rally support for the Iraq War. I wonder if this is any less a case of loyalty being passed on to the wrong party?

In a free society such as we enjoy in the West, it is perhaps more difficult to find direct analogies. Certainly we can be loyal citizens of our country without compromising (for the most part) our loyalties to God. However, when I hear conservative leaders making sweeping statements about America being the greatest nation on earth and conservative Christians nodding their heads in agreement I wonder if our national loyalty has become a bit too deeply entrenched.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Need For A Different Kind of Apologetic

Saw this article today on the BBC. Very interesting. One criticism I have is that there is an assumption that on planets where the conditions would allow complex, intelligent life to develop, such life-forms would appear. I don't think this is necessarily the case, though I'm not denying that it could be. However, put in more moderate terms, this article suggests that there are at least 361 other planets in our galaxy alone that could possibly support an intelligent life-form such as ours.

I am still trying to think about the theological ramifications of this possibility. I don't think there is necessarily a direct challenge to Christianity here, but I do think that this dramatically alters how Christians often do apologetics.

One of the major arguments presented in defense of Christianity (or more generally, of Theism) is called the "Fine-Tuning" Argument. Basically, it says that the conditions necessary for life, and specifically intelligent life, to form are very specific and that the universe could not possibly have produced such conditions randomly. Very frequently, this is done in terms of describing the conditions that allow our planet specifically to support such life. The assumption seems to be that we are unique. This research completely shatters that assumption.

This can't be pushed to far. There are still some more universal conditions that would have to be very specific. For instance, gravity must exist in a specific way to allow the universe to continue to expand. However, the number of factors for which we have to explain the "fine-tuning" has been dramatically reduced. All the factors relating the specific nature of a planet that would support life have been shown to occur frequently. Intelligent "fine-tuning" now seems a much less likely hypothesis for most of these factors. So it seems a different kind of apologetic argument is going to be necessary for Christianity.

I have been fairly skeptical of "classical" arguments for Christianity for a while because they are subject to problems like being refuted or rendered irrelevant by new scientific findings like this. I think a much more beneficial strategy is to start by highlighting several major philosophical problems for naturalism. To me, the most pertinent seem to be that naturalism leads to an incoherent absurdity (namely, that we know absolutely nothing and that all our thoughts, beliefs, and communication is an illusion that is utterly meaningless). These absurdities seem to leave us with the conclusion that the "natural" world is not all that reality consists of. Similar philosophical problems can be raised for pantheism, which seems to leave us with a theistic world-view. From there, I think the evidences for the resurrection of Christ can fairly clearly establish Christianity as the most convincing form of theism.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Deep Thinking In Practical Terms

This post is a little more academic, but I think these are important things to think about.

There are two questions that I have wrestled a lot with lately(lately meaning the last four years in the case of the first question) that I am trying to examine in slightly different lights.

The first question has to do with the nature of "salvation" or the nature of the "gospel." Are these the same things? What are we saved from? Is salvation merely a "pardon" or giving of forgiveness as it seems in many Baptist circles especially. Or is salvation a constant process of taking sacraments and doing good works to become justified in the sight of God, as Catholics seem to think. Is the point of the gospel to get us into heaven or is it to take part in something that is happening here on earth?

These questions are difficult to think through, but I'm trying to put this in a slightly different light. Instead of thinking about these questions in a strictly theoretical and theological perspective where we might debate the merits of each view and its sources of authority, I'm trying to understand the implications of these questions practically. While certainly there is a theoretical aspect to theology and to Christian belief, it seems like Christianity is also intended to be an belief system that is accompanied by a lot of action. So the question I am posing now is "what are the implications for different views on the nature of the gospel/salvation for what we do as Christians?" This is especially pertinent in terms of how we view evangelism. If the gospel is entirely a spiritual message- your sins will be forgiven and you will go live with God in heaven when you die on earth- then our evangelism will be focused on "conversion" and be much more spiritualized. This seems to fit the contemporary Baptist model especially. However, if we view the gospel as a call to participation in God's kingdom on earth (NT Wright is major advocate of this view, for example), then our evangelism will be more focused on calling people to believe in and participate in the work of the church (which will be much more humanitarian and less "spiritual"). So I've really been examining the practical side of this issue more lately and trying to understand how the practical and theoretical influence one-another.

Another related question is an examination of history and how the gospel fits into different historical contexts. For instance, the early church was in a very Jewish context that had at its center the concept of a Messiah. Christianity latched onto that by proclaiming Jesus to be this Messiah. Later, as Christianity expanded into a more Greco-Roman world, it began to adopt the philosophical context of this community by appealing to Perfect-Being Theology especially to explain the nature of God. Most of what we consider the classical theological views of God are taken from Greek philosophy and supported by scripture, rather than the other way around (contrary to the claims of many evangelicals and fundamentalists). As time progressed and the Roman empire fell a more pessimistic and "legal" framework of thinking developed and from that came the theology of Augustine that proclaimed that Christ had paid a certain penalty for our sins, one demanded to "justify" us in the sight of God. And a new view of salvation developed, one in which Christ's work is seen as taking our place and paying our penalty in order to make us perfect in the sight of a God who cannot tolerate imperfection (and yet talks to Moses as a friend, just to give us a hint of where this view, like most, does not completely represent the Biblical data). In other words, Christianity seems to adapt to address different philosophical contexts. In each of these the "tradition" has changed. The question is how does this historical development affect our views today? Should we also adapt to a new philosophical context or do we cling to tradition (a call which ironically seems most strong from fundamentalists who also reject Catholicism's canonization of tradition).

This issue become especially interesting in examining the progression of Protestant thought in the last few hundred years. Protestantism developed as a rejection of a view that had developed in the medieval church to say that by taking the sacraments we somehow obligate God to extend grace to us. I believe the protestants were probably correct in rejecting this theological development in church practice, but Protestants stayed in the same framework of thinking as the medieval church, most adopting views very close to Augustine. However, right on the heals of the Reformation came the Enlightenment, and suddenly the philosophical context of the world changed to being much more optimistic and based around the progress of man's knowledge toward triumph over the forces of the world. In this context, the stories of Christianity seemed outdated and incapable of measuring up to the rigors of academic study. From this context developed Liberalism, which attempted to accommodate Enlightenment thought and in doing so rejected the overwhelming majority of the Christian tradition and formed something radically different from any prior form of Christianity (and for this reason, it seems questionable to consider the more radical forms of Liberalism to be part of Christianity). In response to the extreme measures of Liberalism, Fundamentalism formed which made the opposite error- instead of throwing out tradition they added to it things that had never been essential aspects of the Christian tradition and made them "necessary" to being part of Christianity. Neither view seemed to really address the modernistic social context, and as a result Christianity lost a lot of credibility. Post-modernism seems to pose a similar challenge, but at the same time some very interesting opportunities for Christianity to re-engage the culture meaningfully and address the new context. The question is how this will happen and who will participate? Will more "conservative" Christians shy away for fear of change? Will more liberal Christians throw away theology altogether? Is there some-sort of balance that can be formed to address the culture and still remain essentially Christian?

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