Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Cross and the Ecumenical Movement

Very interesting post by the World Council of Churches about its new leader. I'm excited to see what this guy is going to be doing!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Soul Searching, Part 8- Consumerism and the Church in America

More on the damaging effects of individualism taken too far in America:

Most US youth tend to assume an instrumental view of religion. Most instinctively suppose that religion exists to help individuals be and do what they want, and not as an external authority or divinity that makes compelling claims and demands on their lives, especially to change or grow in ways they may not immediately want to. For most US teenagers, religion is something to personally believe in that makes one feel good and resolves one's problems. For most, it is not an entire way of life or a disciplined practice that makes hard demands of or changes people. Stated differently, for many US teenagers, God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience… This instrumental view of religion is not the invention of teenagers. It seems to be a dominating image of religion embraced by many adults in the United States.- pp. 147-148.

The rugged individualism that drives the "American Dream"- the quest for greatness through individual accomplishment that so dominates most of American culture seems to have a more deep effect on American religion than just promoting an attitude of self-service rather than collective involvement. It also seems to alter some very foundational concepts, such as the relationship between God and man. Traditionally in the Judeo-Christian religion, this relationship has been likened to that between a King and his subjects. We do not "use" God, we serve him. We do not really have a choice in that matter, either- God demands our allegiance as a King demands the allegiance of his subjects and if we do not grant it to him, then trouble ensues for us. That has been how this has normally been understood. It is interesting to note two periods where such an understanding did not occur and the revolutionary results that occurred on both those occasions.

The first is in the first century AD. In the period leading up to this, Jewish thought had developed away from the notion that they must serve God as his subjects and instead begun to develop the notion that by jumping through certain hoops, they could in fact guarantee that God would do certain things for them- in essence promoting the manipulation of God for their own good. Along came Jesus and later one of his apostles Paul. In what we hear from both of these early Christian leaders we see a radical challenge to this mindset. Both find themselves executed largely at Jewish prodding for advancing the notion that God's sovereignty demands our allegiance and that ritual cannot manipulate God into performing acts on our behalf. We receive things from God because he intends to give them to us as part of furthering his plan, a plan for which we are also working if we are his servants. This was lost in first century Judaism, and the result is a radical split of the people of God with the church being forced to break away from its mother institution- Judaism.

The second incident happens at the Protestant Reformation. Catholic theology has at this point made the same mistake as did Jewish theology in the first century. They have proposed a series of rituals by which "purgatory" can be escaped and salvation secured. Again, we see a manipulation of God going on in Church ritual. In response to this come the Reformers who demand that we once again recognize that salvation comes by the will of God alone and is for his purposes, not our own selfish interest. Again, the sovereignty of God had been supplanted by the will of man, and again a radical transformation in the thought patterns of the church had to take place.

Now for those of you who know my personal theological leanings this all may sound a bit out of step. I'm sounding very Calvinistic today, and I will have to write another post later that somehow squares all of this with what I also believe to be true- that we as people have free will. That is for another post, however.

The main point of this post is this- I am afraid a similar error is at work in our churches today, at least in America. The individualism and consumerism (which is just a working out of individualism in economic terms) of our culture have been applied to our religious values. Just as we can pick and choose what suits us in a super-market, so we can pick and choose what suits us in the church. If I don't like the preacher at this church, I go down the street and join that one. If the music isn't quite up to par, I just go off to another church where they have hired a professional band to wow them with their music finesse. Especially among denominations (or non-denominations) where individual churches stand on their own (this is primarily Baptist churches) this phenomenon means that the survival of the church in large part depends on its ability to draw a crowd. So mega-churches thrive and small-town churches die out. And to thrive mega-churches alter their teaching and style to suit the "needs" (read "whimsical desires") of their congregants. The real result of this in terms of theology has been, in my experience, the idea that salvation is accomplished simply by saying a little prayer to ask Jesus to live inside you and then you are guaranteed a spot in heaven no matter what happens the rest of your life. To be frank, this whole concept is heretical and has probably sent more souls to hell in America than any other lie that has seeped into our churches. Yes, salvation is the free gift of God to man. But the God who paid a high price to accomplish this salvation does not expect for his gift to be trampled by those who just want a ticket to paradise but can't afford a cruise in the Caribbean. He expects for the gravity of what he has accomplished on our behalf to inspire a life of service to him, a life engaged in winning back the world that has fallen to sin and restoring creation to how it should be. What we have done and are doing in America is attempting to manipulate God for our own purposes. I don't think such an exercise can continue, there is going to have to be a "reformation" of some sort that occurs in the American church as well.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Soul Searching, Part 7- Individualism And Understanding Wider Relationships

This section of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers is remarkable to me:

American youth, like American adults, are nearly without exception profoundly individualistic, instinctively presuming autonomous, individual self-direction to be a universal human norm and life goal. Thoroughgoing individualism is not a contested orthodoxy for teenagers. It is an invisible and pervasive doxa, that is, an unrecognized, unquestioned, invisible premise or presupposition… most US teenagers are at least somewhat allergic to anything they view as trying to influence them. They generally view themselves as autonomous mediators or arbitrators of all outside influences; it is they themselves who finally influence their own lives… This autonomous individualism, not incidentally, helps to explain why teens have such difficulty articulating how religion influences them. They have difficulty imaging how religion influences their lives because they tend to imagine that nothing influences them, at least without their final choice that it does so. The idea that one's life is being formed and transformed by the power of a historical religious tradition can be nearly incomprehensible to people who have allergies to outside influences. Such a perspective lends itself instead to thinking of religion as something one chooses to use… not something to which one devotes oneself or gives away one's life. -pp. 143-144.

This aspect of American culture has continually baffled me. From the standpoint of one who has spent a good amount of time studying the history of philosophical ideas, it amazes me how dependent American thought is on the Renaissance humanists of Italy and Germany in the fifteenth century and on the British liberal philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century such as John Locke and Adam Smith. And while I appreciate the impact of all of these great thinkers- it is certainly a benefit that individual rights have come to be regarded as undeniable in Western culture and that tyranny has been all but eradicated in the West in the name of protecting those rights- it is interesting to see how American culture in particular has taken all these ideas to an extreme that is not present anywhere else in the world. My family has strong ties to the UK and I have friends scattered around Europe. As "Democratized" as those countries are, they are also all very "collectivistic" in their political and social outlooks. Policies on everything from economics to foreign affairs to social norms are set from the standpoint of what is best for the nation as a whole (frequently with a utilitarian ring, this is true, but still the idea of collective responsibility is very prominent in European thinking and politics). This is why it shocks Europeans that America does not have a national health-care system.

America was founded as a series of colonies mostly populated by people who couldn't make it in the Old World and so came here to start anew and hit it big. Most of America's history consists of movement to the frontier where this same mentality of a new opportunity to be successful drew settlers. Its interesting to note that is predominantly the major costal cities that were populated and industrialized earliest where the "liberal" ideas of "European Socialism" have taken the most root. It is the still-growing interior parts of American where "conservative" (where conservative means, in fact, the classical liberal ideas of the European Enlightenment) ideals still dominate and where individualism is most apparent (though its definitely still apparent in the costal cities as well). The overwhelming American mentality since its inception has been that success means growth which means you have to work as hard as you can to make more money than you already do to have a more "comfortable" existence than you do now (where comfortable means having more stuff that you cannot use because you are constantly working to acquire more). Ok, I'm exaggerating a little, but this is definitely the stereo-type and it is one that is true more often than not. There is a story I heard of some American businessmen who were visiting Brazil and saw some fisherman napping in their boat just off shore. "What are you doing?" they asked. "Relaxing" was the answer. "Shouldn't you be working?" "Why would we do that?" "Well, you could make more money then." "What for?" "So you could buy more equipment and make even more money." "What for?" "So you could hire some other people to fish for you and then you could just sit around and relax." "Well that's what we are doing now…" The point of this whole diatribe is merely this: The American dream is unsustainable. Success is not measured in material goods but in the quality of life lived with what you have. And quality is not a material term either, it’s a relational and a spiritual one. Better to die with little but the appreciation and respect of many than to die filthy rich but unknown and unloved.

To come back to the real point of this entire post- the individualism that so dominates our culture is a double-edged sword. It robs us of a sense of who we are in relation to the rest of the world. And it quite frequently robs us of a greater quality of life that would be lived if we would just slow down a bit and relax and enjoy what we already have. The first of these is especially important- without a sense of who we are and where we come from, we tend to think that our life is just lived in a void. The typical American mentality is to say "I am alive for an amount of time that is, in the big scheme of things, insignificant. So if I want my life to be significant, I have to be hugely successful." Yet, such a mentality forgets that we are not living in a vacuum. We are part of an entity larger than ourselves- our culture, our religious tradition, our nation, our world, etc. Significance to our individual life doesn't have to depend on carving out an individual name for ourselves. It can just as easily come from continuing the movement of which we are a part, from furthering causes that are not solely ours but which we are part of. We accomplish more together than separately. But to work together, we have to understand who we are in relation to each other. And this involves recognizing the influences that have shaped all of us- the common history we share just as much as it does recognizing the individual strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the table.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Soul Searching, Part 6- Religious Inarticulancy and Language Learning

Thus far the evidence we have considered from the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers has painted a fairly positive picture of the attitude of teenagers toward religion. However, now that we begin to examine their personal religious beliefs, what quickly becomes apparent is that while they may generally consider religion a good and beneficial thing, their understanding of it in their own lives lacks a great deal of substance. Not long ago I showed a video by NT Wright to my youth. The title was "An Evening With NT Wright: Learning the Language of Virtue" or something close to that. Excellent video if you're curious, I found it on the I-Tunes store and downloaded it for free. As I've been reading this book, I've been reminded of that video. Two sections to consider:

Again, nobody expects adolescents to be sophisticated theologians. But very few of the descriptions of personal beliefs offered by the teenagers we interviewed, especially the Christian teenagers, come close to representing marginally coherent accounts of the basic, important religious beliefs of their own faith traditions. The majority of US teens would badly fail a hypothetical short-answer or essay test of the basic beliefs of their religion… Most teenagers held religious beliefs that, judged by their own religion's standards, were often trivial, misguided, distorted, and sometimes outright doctrinally erroneous. The point here is not that US teenagers are dumb or deplorable. They are not. The point is simply that understanding and embracing the right religious faith and belief according to their religions does not appear to be a priority in the lives of most US adolescents- and perhaps many of their parents. Faith is usually just there, around somewhere, and most teens do believe something religious or other. But religion simply doesn't seem consequential enough to most teenagers to pay close attention to and get right. Rather, most teens seem content to live with a low-visibility religion that operates somewhere in the mental background of their lives. -p. 137.

We do not believe that teenage inarticulacy about religious matters reflects any general teen incapacity to think and speak well. Many of the youth we interviewed were quite conversant when it came to their views on salient issues in their lives about which they had been educated and had practice discussing, such as the dangers of drug abuse and STDs. Rather, our impression as interviewers was that many teenagers could not articulate matters of faith because they have not been effectively educated in and provided opportunities to practice talking about their faith. Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life. Very many seemed caught off-balance by our simple questions, uncertain about what we were asking, at a loss to know how to respond. It was clear that, for many teens, very little in their lives had prepared them to be able to explain, even in basic terms, what they believe and how that fits into their lives… Religious language is like any other language: to learn how to speak it, one needs first to listen to native speakers using it a lot, and then one needs plenty of practice at speaking it oneself. Many US teenagers, it appears, are not getting a significant amount of such exposure and practice and so are simply not learning the religious language of their faith tradition. - p. 133.

In my own experience as a youth director, I have discovered that the fastest and most effective way to get my youth quiet is to ask a question. No one wants to answer, no one wants to speak. Which is unfortunate… And not just on the level of making lessons sometimes momentarily awkward, but because it is going to make it harder for these teens to evaluate the claims they will be exposed to later in life that compete with and even contradict the beliefs they supposedly hold to as Christians. If I can encourage anything in my youth, it is that I want them to be comfortable (hopefully fluent, but I'll settle for comfortable if I can't get them there) at discussing what they think and believe about very important matters of their faith and spiritual life.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Soul Searching, Part 5- A Balancing Act

While much of the evidence considered thus far in the book Soul Searching presents a very positive image of the attitudes of teenagers towards religion, there are limitations. Almost all teens have a negative perception of people who are "too" religious that they want to avoid. This idea probably coincides with the popular stereotypes of fundamentalists who's entire life is based around a literal reading of certain misinterpreted passages of scripture (taken from the original manuscripts themselves as recorded by King James in 1611, no doubt). However, in attempting to avoid this stereotype many teens therefore push religion to the background of their lives and downgrade its importance. Somewhere there is a balance to be found. My personal opinion is that this balance will be easier to achieve when we in the more conservative elements of Christianity become willing to actually engage and confront the "challenging" aspects of our faith that are so often submerged underneath fundamentalist rhetoric. A more open-minded faith makes it easier to acknowledge the importance of faith in our lives and at the same time avoid drinking the cool-aide.

Response to a Debate at Southeastern Bible College

Just saw a debate last Friday on the campus of Southeastern Bible College between Christian philosopher Doug Geivett (Talbot Theological Seminary) and atheist philosopher Bruce Russell (Wayne State University) over the existence of God. It was a very interesting debate, I feel like it was conducted with a good, gracious spirit by both sides and that it was fairly evenly matched.

I feel like the main point in Geivett's favor was the exchange over the "Problem of Evil." Russell attempted to argue that there is an excessive amount of evil in the world, suggesting that God does not exist. Geivett replied with the typical rejoinder that it is beyond our ability to know whether or not there is an excessive amount of evil and thus this is unintelligible claim. I think that reply is persuasive. I will note, however, that there was an interesting point in the discussion in which they agreed that the persuasiveness of the argument rested on the likelihood in other terms of God's existence. If we are convinced that there are good reasons to think that God exists, then we are likely to say there is no unnecessary evil and that we simply do not see the reasons for evil actions or events. On the other hand, if we are not convinced that there are good reasons to believe in God's existence, then the amount of evil in the world certainly seems excessive for a world in which God might exist. I'm not entirely sure what to make of that part of the exchange, but I thought it was interesting at least.

The main aspect of the debate that was of interest to me was the exchange over the cosmological argument. I have to say that I think Russell won this part of the debate quite solidly. The cosmological argument for God's existence runs like this: The universe has a beginning. This event, like all other events, has to have a cause. However, for it to have a spatial-temporal cause would only require another cause, and so on, for an infinite chain. Therefore, it must have a cause that is atemporal and aspatial and yet still capable of causing a temporal and spatial event. We infer from this the existence of a "creator." Now, I have long been suspicious of this argument for two main reasons- I'm not sure (and the way I've sketched this argument I hope demonstrates this) that this argument really describes anything resembling the Christian God. There is certainly nothing in this argument that seems to me to demand an intelligent or personal being (though some have claimed such, I think mistakenly). There is nothing that even requires that the "cause" be a "being" in the sense of a "living being." So I think more is drawn from this argument than is actually implied. My second reason for being suspicious of this argument is that it assumes (like many similar "classical" arguments for God) a particular scientific/metaphysical paradigm that is not universally accepted. The success of this argument rests on the assumption that both sides of the argument share the presupposition that the universe has a beginning point temporally and spatially. However, many physicists no longer hold to the big-bang model of the universe's existence, and thus advocate the belief in an eternal universe. Once the "shared presupposition" is no longer shared, the argument becomes worthless without another argument demonstrating that the paradigm this argument depends on is correct.

None of these reasons, however, were the ones that were brought up by Russell in his critique. Instead, Russell used the concept of an atemporal being to critique the argument and I believe show it to be self-defeating. His response is basically this: an atemporal being is one that has no experience of time, it simply exists. Thus, there can be no change in the existence of an atemporal being. So if there is an atemporal being that wills to be (and is) a creator, then this being is constantly and always willing to create and is constantly/always creating. This would then seem to indicate that there is no time boundary to this beings creation because it is perpetually or eternally being created (these words aren't quite adequate because they are themselves temporal words and thus don't apply to an atemporal being, but form our perspective they are the best that can be done). So given all this, there seems to be a contradiction in the cosmological argument- the beginning of the universe requires an atemporal creator. But an atemporal creator creates a universe with no beginning!

I think it is open to the Christian (such as myself) to respond to this one of two ways: Either we agree with what Russell is saying and claim that the universe indeed has no beginning. I honestly don't see this as especially problematic, but its certainly not the traditional Christian view. Or, we agree that this shows that there is a significant problem with the argument, but we claim the problem can be solved by making a different claim- the "creator" does not have to be atemporal, it can be a temporal being (though I'm honestly not exactly sure how this works with the motivation of the argument for avoiding an infinite chain of causes). Again, this is not a traditional Christian view, and again, its not one I have any discomfort with (though this approach will have larger ramifications on our theology because of the implications it has for questions such as divine immutability or knowledge). Either way, I think Russell has shut down the traditional conception of this argument, a realization that unfortunately for Geivett did not occur during the course of the debate.

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