Sunday, March 20, 2011

Some Political Musings

This post comes with some theme music, courtesy of my friend Justin Cross.

Doing some research the other day, came upon this pretty interesting piece on the BBC.  There is always a lot of talk of the US as a modern imperial state, much of it I think misguided.  However, it is certainly true that since the Second World War, and largely as a result of the Cold War mentality, for America to protect its interests abroad has meant exerting its influence in an often very heavy-handed manner.  I think this piece does a good job of explaining how this kind of imperialism defers from the more intentional imperialism of European colonialism of prior centuries.

With that in the background, it has frequently been noted in the last decade or so that US influence is in many ways waning.  Certainly the lack of a UN Consensus backing the invasion of Iraq was troubling for US foreign policy.  I think more significant have been recent shifts in the global economic situation in the wake of the financial crisis: talk of moving major commodities to a currency other than the dollar and the continued growth (especially in domestic consumption) of the Chinese economy both spoke more of the decline in American influence than anything else in recent history, I think, until the uprisings in the Middle-East began.

The Middle-East has been a vital part of US interests since World War II for a couple of reasons.  On a strictly diplomatic front, America has a special commitment to the security of Israel, and keeping the Middle-East stable has been seen as necessary for that end.  On an economic front, the Middle-East supplies a vital resource- oil- and keeping the region stable is essential to the economic interests of the US and many of its allies.  For both of these reasons, promoting democracy has generally taken a back-seat to promoting stability in the region, even if that stability meant keeping in power a dictator who was less than friendly to his own people, Egypt being the ultimate case and point.

So the recent wave of uprisings across the Middle-East has put the US in a bit of a tight spot.  On the one hand, these uprisings are based on the principles that supposedly stand at the center of American civic society: freedom, self-determination, the government serving the interests of the people, protecting human rights.  On the other hand, these democratic uprisings threaten the stability of a region the US has long worked to keep stable.  Equally alarming to American interests is that in many ways these uprisings are anti-US.  The long oppressed citizens of the Middle-East are not unaware of who has been propping up their autocratic governments.  If these uprisings succeed, not only is it likely the region will be less stable, it is almost certain the attitude of the region's governments toward the US will take a turn South.  Ultimately, it seems, these considerations have prevailed and kept the US from taking an active role in addressing the situation in the Middle-East.

Libya seems to be the exception.  Even here, though, we see reluctance to act.  The US let Britain and France take the lead in pushing for international backing on a no-fly zone.  Then the US suddenly stepped in and beefed up the resolution (but only when it was clear Arab states were on board as well).  At first, the US seemed content to let other nations take the lead on military action.  It only became apparent later that the US is taking an active role in the strikes taking place on Libyan targets now. 

The division between the European role in this and the American role in the Middle-East lately has been quite interesting.  Long before Obama put any pressure on Mubarak in Egypt, London and Paris were demanding he leave.  France has already recognized the rebel coalition as the legitimate government of Libya.  Together, they and the UK have been demanding military action to defend the rebels for over a week.  The US only decided it supported this kind of intervention two days ago.  It seems, in other words, that in this current crisis the perception that Europe acts as a kind of extension of American foreign policy is also being unraveled a bit.

Ultimately, what I think this amounts to is that the current Middle-East crisis is marking very visibly a major geo-political shift.  Undoubtedly these revolutions will rewrite the history of the Middle-East for some time to come.  However, I think they represent something even more significant than that.  Many commentators have expressed doubts about democracy really taking root in the Middle-East after these revolutions.  They may be right- I highly doubt these countries will move immediately from autocracy to full-fledged democracy.  Very rarely does such a change happen in any part of the world.  However, if the shift that occurs bolsters the independence of these states, that in itself will be something remarkable.  If we begin to see governments emerge that are more focused on their domestic political situation than on the political situation in Washington, that are willing to pursue their own interests apart from, and even in spite of, American interests then these revolutions will reflect a major shift in the global balance of power.

Both because I am more a student of economics than of foreign policy and because it seems economic problems have played a significant role in the uprisings we have seen thus far, this discussion shifts in my own mind into an economic analysis.  For many of the Gulf-states, the huge economic potential of their region is largely being realized.  Look at the UAE or Qatar or Kuwait, countries that are remarkably successful economically.  This success is not just seen in domestic terms either- the amount of foreign investment coming out of Dubai is staggering.  What if a country like Egypt were to begin developing economically with the same intensity that the UAE has seen?  What if Cairo were to become an economic powerhouse of a city like Dubai?  What about Tripoli?  How likely is this, we might ask?  Well, for whatever governments come to power after these revolutions to stand a chance of lasting their top concern is going to have to be economic development.  Much of the unrest in the Middle-East is a result of countries who are facing high levels of poverty and unemployment while an elite few enjoy the spoils of the nations oil-wealth.  Domestic economic development will have to become a priority for new governments, and I would not be surprised if they look at successful nations like the UAE as models.  If new degrees of privatization and competition drive their markets upward, it could have dramatic geo-political effects.  A Middle-East driven by its own interests, asserting its independence from Western powers, and enjoying the spoils of a surging economy could very well be a region with a lot more ability to influence and direct international affairs, especially given the significance of their top commodity- oil- for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Center of Christianity? A Response to Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan recently posted a review of the new book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, on The Gospel Coalition's website.

The review is, as might be expected, a stinging critique of Bell and his theology.  Before I launch into my response, I want to draw an important distinction.  I think critique and discourse are extremely important to the development of the Christian faith.  Through conversation we grow in our understanding of God, one another, and the world we are called to live in and minister to.  In that sense, I have always appreciated free thinkers like Bell who challenge previously held presuppositions and force us to reconsider beliefs we might have taken for granted.  That process of questioning and reconsidering, of reformulating and rediscovering our faith, is vital to the continued relevance of the Church and its mission.  Reformed, and Always Reforming should be a maxim for Christians today, and to that extent those like Bell who force the continued reformation, or perhaps reformulation, of the Christian faith are of great service to the contemporary church.  With that said, I am also quite happy to see such thinkers critiqued and the inconsistencies of some of their experimentation pointed out.  Our faith is made stronger by those who ask difficult questions.  It is also made stronger by those who point out that not all the answers to those difficult questions work.

So all of that is to say that what I am not doing in this response is defending Rob Bell.  Nor am I going to argue for anything like his position.  I leave that to others to argue over.  What I do wish to address, however, is a grave error that I think has cropped up in the Evangelical, Neo-Reformed response to Bell.  This is the claim that "traditional Evangelicalism" represents "traditional Christianity."  Such a claim is patently false.  Many of the responses given by DeYoung and others to Bell's proposal have rested on the idea that they represent "the center of Christianity," and therefore they can make the judgment that Bell is heterodox or perhaps heretical.  This kind of arrogant isolationism by Evangelical leaders is extremely detrimental to the development of sound theology and to the spiritual nourishment of their followers.  Evangelicals need to remember that they represent a tiny minority of the global Christian community, and a minority that has only really existed for the last hundred and fifty years or so.  This means that while you can disagree with much of Bell's theology, the case for your disagreement needs to be more than "this isn't Evangelical."

To illustrate using the most glaring example (to me) in DeYoung's review, lets look at the issue of the atonement.  DeYoung sarcastically comments on Bell's views about the atonement:
So what does Bell believe about the atonement? He starts with the familiar refrain that there are many images for what the death of Jesus accomplished and none of them should be prized more than another (though he claims Christus Victor was the dominant understanding for the first thousand years of church history). The point is not to argue about the images. “The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is” (129).
DeYoung goes on from here to question how it would be possible for Bell not to take a penal substitutionary view of the atonement and in effect dismisses Bell's views.  What is disturbing about this is that Bell is exactly right here.  DeYoung needs to go back and read his historical theology:  The Christus Victor motif was the almost completely unquestioned understanding of the atonement in Christian theology for the first 1200 years of Church history.  Later scholastics in the Middle Ages would begin to tinker with more legal ideas- such as penal substitution- but those would not become popular in Christian theology until after the Reformation, and then only in Reformed circles.  In most Orthodox traditions, by which I mean Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, much of the Anglican Tradition, and even some Lutheran and Methodist theology, Christus Victor is still the dominant motif for understanding the atonement.  Bell is, in all likelihood, expressing the view of the atonement held by two-thirds of contemporary Christians!  DeYoung is welcome to disagree with this view, and I am sure very good arguments could be made for his own position.  However, to substantiate such disagreement he is going to need more than dismissive sarcasm and some vague allusions to Leviticus (which, for what its worth, I think he has utterly misunderstood in his comments) and some proof-texts from Paul.  As a student of Biblical studies, I would go so far as to say that every passage DeYoung alludes to can be interpreted to fit with Bell's theory without much difficulty.  DeYoung's blind assertions do nothing but demonstrate that he is unaware of a world beyond his Evangelical bubble.

Another glaring example of DeYoung twisting the meaning of "traditional Christianity" has to do with his own exegetical stance.  DeYoung critiques Bell's use of prophetic imagery about the future restoration of the earth, imagery that very frequently features the entire world worshipping God at Zion, by using a dispensationalist rubric and dismissing them as only applying to national Israel in the Old Testament.  While I vehemently disagree with dispensationalism, I am very willing to accept that this is a legitimate rubric of interpretation.  What I object to here is not that DeYoung is a dispensationalist.  What I object to is that DeYoung implies that his rubric is the traditional, Orthodox rubric for understanding these texts and therefore Bell is doing something radically new and suspicious.  Again, DeYoung needs to read up on his historical theology.  Dispensationalism as a system of interpretation has barely existed for two centuries.  Ironically, then, DeYoung is critiquing Bell for doing something new with these texts by himself reading them in a very new way!  Again let me stress, DeYoung is perfectly free to read the text this way.  However, he needs to be honest about his own assumptions and not present them as representing the "center of Christian Orthodoxy."  Such a claim is false, and such deception in the process of critiquing another Christian thinker is detrimental the spiritual well-being of the Church.

Of course, ultimately DeYoung will likely dismiss my comments for two reasons: first, he will claim that I, or anyone representing any of the other Christian viewpoints I have mentioned in this post, do not adequately deal with the Biblical evidence.  Second, he will claim, as he does in arguing against Bell, that such viewpoints have ultimately fabricated a "different God."  Both claims, I think, are circular and amount to DeYoung making the following statement:  "I know my beliefs to be true because I know my beliefs are true and anyone who disagrees with my beliefs must be wrong because they disagree with my beliefs."  I am very sympathetic to the idea that we believe what we believe because we are convinced our beliefs are true.   I am not at all sympathetic to the kind of circular reasoning DeYoung is exhibiting here.

So for instance, I can anticipate that DeYoung will dismiss the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement as found in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy by saying these are not true Christians because they do not share his view of the authority of scripture.  Such a statement again betrays a lack of understanding of his own position within Christianity.  The authority of scripture which Evangelicalism cherishes is a product of Reformation era theology.  In other places I have discussed why I find a strong sense of sola scriptura to be problematic, but the short version is that we only know scripture because of traditions that tell us what scripture is (i.e., the canon is a tradition and not itself Biblical), and further we only read scripture through the lens of a particular set of presuppositions.  Even if we accept the Evangelical notion of scripture, to take the further step of claiming that all who disagree with this notion are outside of Christian Orthodoxy is not only a misreading of Christian history, it is also begging the question.  The Eastern Orthodox respondent can simply ask "why should scripture be our sole theological authority?"  To which the Evangelical answer will have to be that it is because our Evangelical tradition tells us it is.

DeYoung's final chess-move is to claim that those who disagree with him, such as Bell, have fabricated a "different God" and therefore are unorthodox.  I believe just a little pushing and tugging at the meaning of this statement will reveal the unbelievable arrogance it represents.  Throughout Christian history, as DeYoung himself notes, there have been adamant disagreements about many, many theological issues.  DeYoung is especially fond of pointing out disagreements where one side was labeled heretical- such as the Arian controversy.  However, within the boundaries of Orthodoxy there have been many disputes as well.  As I have pointed out, there are many Orthodox understandings of the atonement.  To pick a very minor issue, there are many different interpretations of various Biblical passages- such as Jacob wrestling before crossing the river- which are considered Orthodox.  The debate about dispensationalism is another example of disagreement within Orthodoxy.  Even within dispensational theology there are disputes about details.  My point here is ask at what point DeYoung determines that a different God is on the table?  Do the pre-tribulation and post-tribulation dispensationalists both worship the same God?  Do Calvinists and Arminians worship the same God (gasp!)?  Do Lutherans and Presbyterians worship the same God?  What about Evangelicals and Roman Catholics?  In claiming that Bell has created a different God, DeYoung is attempting to cast Bell out of Christianity.  Yet, such noted, and clearly Orthodox, teachers as CS Lewis, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner have all expressed views extremely similar to that of Bell.  Did they all follow a different God than DeYoung?  And who gets to decide that?  Is it DeYoung who decides what God is like and what we can disagree on and not disagree on?  How did he get such sweeping authority to determine Christian Orthodoxy?  In the end, this claim by DeYoung amounts to a claim to absolute theological knowledge.  Such arrogance from a prominent Christian teacher, especially when employed to critique another prominent Christian teacher, cannot be beneficial to the Church.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Philosophy in Conversation with Theology

Building on what was said in my last post, I think hermeneutics provides us the key for understanding how philosophy and theology interact with one another.

There are two ways, I think, to try and do theology.  The first has often been termed "natural theology," and it goes about its work by attempting to argue from our experience of the world to a particular understanding of God.  The inherent problem, I think, for natural theology is that it will always be conducted from a particular point of view- it will always be subjective.  My critique of many of the classical arguments regarding Theism, for instance, has been that they assume too much- the cosmological argument, to take one example, assumes that since I cannot fathom an absolute infinite progression of past events, it cannot exist and there must be a first cause of everything.  Further, many presentations of that argument assume that we can draw certain conclusions about the "cause-without-a-cause": that it is a thinking, exceedingly powerful, being, for instance.  How we move from "a" to "b" in these instances will, I think, largely depend on the worldview from which we start assessing these arguments.  We interpret the information subjectively, in other words, based on our predisposition to believe one way or another.  My conclusion, at the end of the day, is that the most that "natural theology" can accomplish for us is to show that our beliefs are rational- they make sense, they are coherent with other parts of our experience.  We cannot make the further claim that they are "true" based on such arguments.

The other approach takes its starting point in revelation.  This approach takes on the image of the conversation we left off with last time.  Something or someone beyond us is saying something to us, is projecting an experience onto us, that we take in and "read" and then make part of our experience.  Revelation is an act of communication, not simply observation as in the case of "natural theology," and the process by which we receive and are affected by revelation is a hermeneutical process.  This means that how we walk away from such a revelatory encounter will be largely determined by our subjective perspective, by our point of view, by our presuppositions, etc.  Largely, it will be a result of these things, but not entirely.  Revelation starts beyond us and we encounter it.  How we "read" that encounter is I think constrained, at least in part, by the object itself.  It cannot be completely a product of our own minds because the object is not a product of our minds, it’s a medium of communication between one person and another.  Theology, on this approach then, is entirely dependent on the third axiom and everything we have said about it.

In more practical terms very briefly:

I think the problem of fundamentalism, whether it be on the right or on the left end of the political spectrum, is that it takes too much of the first approach to theology.  This often means reducing the "text" of revelation (whether it be in scripture, tradition, philosophy, or experience) to an artifact which we observe and thereby draw conclusions from.  As I have said above, whenever we do this we arrive at interpretations that are derived from the presuppositions we started with.  In any such case, what is lacking is a conversation.  This conversation does not require total objectivity in reading the "text"- total objectivity is a myth.  But it does require the recognition of the voice from beyond that is speaking to us through the medium of the "text."  We are resisting the urge to create God in our own image.  And while I will never have a fully objective view of God, in the same way that when I approach another human there will always be a hint of what I wish they were in my perception of them, by opening ourselves up to the idea that this conversation involves another person we open ourselves up to the idea that the conversation can change us.  Our ideas can be put to the test, we can have true dialogue about what we believe  and why that allows for constructive theology that is more than just a projection of our wishes onto God.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Philosophy in Conversation

One more shameless plug:  Just found out that a paper proposal I submitted to the Society of Biblical Literature has been accepted and I will be presenting it at the New England Regional Conference in Boston on April 29.  The paper is on the hermeneutics (branch of philosophy interested in how we interpret texts) of Augustine, who I am putting in dialogue with the founder of modern hermeneutics Friedrich Schleiermacher and a prominent example of post-modern hermeneutics, Yale's own Dale Martin.  This is only the second time I will have presented a paper at an academic conference, and though I am fascinated by hermeneutics I don't have nearly enough background to consider myself an expert.  So I'm a little nervous about this presentation, particularly the Q & A part, but also quite excited for it!

Hermeneutics is, I think, ultimately where philosophy goes.  It is, as it were, the meta-philosophy.  Given my three axioms, at the end of the day while I think philosophy provides us with certain "basic beliefs" that we need to make sense of the world at all- beliefs like the world exists, other people exist, etc.- I ultimately think that philosophy tells us very little with any certainty.  My subjective understanding of the world is, at the end of the day, something about which I cannot have objective verification.  I cannot ever really know that most of the things I believe are true.  I can make the claim that these beliefs I hold work in a coherent way with one another- that my view of the world makes sense of everything about the world that I have experienced.  But that is not to say that I "know" these things are true.  The objectivity required for real "knowledge" is something I can simply never achieve.  This seemingly bleak, nearly skeptical picture that I have painted I have tried to temper by the idea of communication.  This idea is, I think, essential to philosophy.  As we communicate, as we enter into dialogue with one another, the ideas that we have may be challenged or supported.  Our sensibilities may be honored, or we may find ourselves offended by what others have to say to us.  All of this is part of entering into a conversation, be it spoken or in writing or perhaps in the form of art.  Hermeneutics attempts to describe how this conversation works, to provide us with a philosophy of the dialogue on which philosophy is built.

Here is where the third axiom becomes especially important, I think.  In a previous post I noted that embedded in this axiom seems to be the assumption that other people exist because for communication to happen we need more than one person.  What that also implies, I think, is that the other person is really saying something.  In post-modern hermeneutics there is a tendency to relegate meaning entirely to the realm of the "reader."  The reader creates meaning, the author or speaker and the "text" have no agency whatsoever.  I think the most simple refutation of this is the phenomenon of reading a text with which you disagree or which you find offensive.  Perhaps we can find some deep Freudian reason why I might create a reading at which I myself am offended, but I think the more straightforward notion is to say that the text, or the author, or perhaps both, really are communicating with me as the reader.  Communication is not me in a vacuum imagining what others might say, it is me listening to what someone else actually has said.

The danger to saying this is that we might slip too far in the opposite direction and endlessly ponder what exactly the other person meant.  I'm not sure that is helpful, either.  I have mentioned before that I am a bit of a musician.  As a musician, I occasionally write music (though not nearly as often as I would like).  My experience when writing a song has generally been that while the song originates with something in my experience, be it an event or an emotion or whatever, it usually takes on a life of its own in the process of being written such that at the end of the day I can say simultaneously that I deeply identify with my own music, but also that none of the songs I have written are actually about me or anyone that I know.  They have become their own entity.  I imagine that this is how many artists feel, whatever their medium.  I think this is also how much of our communication works.  The text and the author really are saying something.  But that something may not be clear, even to them.  So when we interpret a text, we interpret it based on how it affects us.  To a certain extent, that process is guided by who we are- it is part of our subjective experience.  But I also think it is the case that this process is the result of something from beyond us projecting into our experience, in a sense generating an experience for us from which we draw some meaning.

Where this leaves us, I think, is a picture of a conversation.  As I approach others with my own ideas, I have the experience of learning about theirs.  Our ways of thinking, our philosophies, enter into a conversation with one another.  From that conversation we draw some sort of meaning.  That meaning may change us in some way, impacting our own way of thinking, molding our philosophy as our experience and understanding of the world grows wider and wider.  But it may also change and impact the other person, shaping their philosophy as they too grow in their understanding.

The Rob Bell Controversy

I have weighed in on the discussion surrounding Rob Bell's new book Love Wins in a couple of venues.  However, I think a good friend of mine, Ryan Junkin, has provided a much better and clearer commentary on the controversy.  I highly recommend checking out his blog post:

I think particularly helpful is how he ends the post: "one never knows Scripture so well and so certainly that he can confidently dismiss dissenters without engaging them, stubbornly relying on traditionally-formulated answers.  To do so is to spit in the face of the hurting, questioning world to which Scripture sends us."

For the Evangelical community I think this is an essential reminder, and a reminder which people like Rob Bell have adamantly pushed on a community which often prefers easy, compact answers to very difficult questions.

I also very highly recommend that everyone watch the video promoting this book, which can be found on Amazon's page here.  I wonder how many of the comments made in response to Rob Bell have been made based on hearsay without having actually seen the video (which is the best we can do right now since the book isn't actually out yet).

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