Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tribute to a Great Man

Today we laid to rest my grandfather, Ronald Baker, by spreading his ashes, some rose petals, a little wine and some vodka in the beautiful (and freezing) waters of Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe.  Granddad was a great man whom we all loved dearly.  He has always been one of my heroes because of his self-determination and the many things he accomplished in his many adventures in life.  He was born in England in 1929 and grew up near London during the Second World War.  Afterwards, he joined the Royal Navy and served for two years before leaving the service, marrying my grandmother (who died 6 years ago) and becoming a self-taught mechanical engineer.  In the mid-50’s he moved his young family to the United States and took a job with professor Donald Glaser at the University of Michigan.  They would go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics for one of their projects (known as a Bubble Chamber) and move to the University of California at Berkeley where they would do a lot of work in medical technology, including making significant contributions to the project to map the human genome.  Granddad loved people and especially loved when our family and closest friends gathered together from the four corners of this continent and from across the ocean.  Those gatherings were never dull, and this reunion has certainly been a worthy celebration of his life and the impact he had on all of us.  Today as we watched the rose petals floating across the almost perfectly still water of the bay we toasted to his memory and enduring influence on us all.  I always loved his stories and his British wit.  I have always treasured him as a man who, even as he worked in one of the most competitive academic environments in the world, was always more interested in talking to his family and friends than taking part in any heady academic discussion.  Even as he reached his eighties he was still a party animal.  He was incredibly practical and wise and someone we all looked up to.  We will all miss him tremendously.
Granddad, we love you, we miss you, we will never forget you or the many things you have taught us.  May you rest in peace.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Great Music for a Great Cause

A few weeks ago, as many are aware, several devastating storms tore through the Southeast, hitting Alabama especially hard.  I, at least, have been lamenting (as I watched the simultaneously fascinating and horrifying videos of major devastation to cities I once lived and worked in) at not being in Alabama to help any with the recovery efforts.

Another thing I have lamented since moving to the Northeast is no longer having Birmingham's incredible local music scene to keep me entertained with fantastic folk and rock musicians.

The "quick fix" for both of these problems, at least for the moment, has been this album put together by several of Birmingham's fantastic musicians (and a few friends from other areas like Nashville, TN, where I flew in today) to raise money for the recovery efforts that continue in that state.  I have been listening to this album for the last week and it really is fantastic!!  Please check it out and consider donating the $10 to help many who are in need.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Evangelicals and the Academy: A Continuing Story

Some thoughts prompted by preparations for the summer reading project at Restless, Young, and Reforming and by a conversation with my roommate which has caused me to focus in on this issue a bit more.
Evangelicalism and the academy have often had a very tenuous relationship.  In my own experience of contemporary evangelicalism, there has seemed to be an inherent distrust of all things academic (at least related to theology, philosophy, or the Bible).  My experience is not unique, this kind of systemic suspicion of the academy was I think echoed in the warnings of one of my favorite professors at my (evangelical) undergraduate institution: “the more you study the Bible or theology academically, the more uncomfortable you will be listening to most sermons and sitting through most church services.”  The feeling of distrust between academy and church in evangelical circles is mutual, in other words (and take especial note, this is a statement coming from the evangelical academy, not the mainline academy).  Where does this deep-seated suspicion come from?
In a chapter I just read in (my old pastor) Andy Byers’ new book Faith Without Illusions, an answer having to do with sociology is given, a connection being made  between the frontier movement on which evangelicalism in this country was based and a distrust of all things “established,” including established, institutional higher learning.  Two other blogs that I have read recently are worth mentioning, as they offer somewhat different perspectives than I will offer here.  The first is from David Fitch, author of The End of Evangelicalism? among other things.  He discusses in this post the difference between the context of the Reformation and the context of contemporary American evangelicalism.  The second is from Baptist theologian Roger Olson, who discusses in this post what he sees as a shift back toward fundamentalism that has happened in evangelicalism in the last few decades.  The approach I am taking here is closer to what Fitch does, but I am going to focus a bit on the history of the term “evangelical” in discussing the relationship of evangelicalism to the academy.  Interestingly, as I was finishing up this post I was also beginning to read The Younger Evangelicals by Robert E. Webber for our summer reading project at Restless, Young, and Reforming and noticed that he does something very similar in his introduction.
As far as I understand it, “evangelical” was originally a much more generic term for Protestantism as understood by the Reformers.  Following the path of their renaissance humanist teachers, the Reformers solution to the problems they saw in the Catholic Church was to go “back to the text,” and in particular the text of the “evangelists”- the New Testament.  Thus, the term “Evangelical,” which if it had kept its original meaning might be (in my opinion) a better title than Protestant for the branch of Christianity it represents.  Interestingly, this renewed emphasis on the text led to the need for in depth study of the text, which led for the need for a strong system of hermeneutics. This got its running start with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is also considered in many ways the origin point of the historical-critical method from which came the “liberal” study of the Bible.  In other words, to a very large degree modern “liberal”/critical study of the Bible was actually a product of the Evangelical movement.
Like everything else, this story is complicated.  So what we are doing here is “squinting,” which I’m quite willing to admit.  Whole books have been written about this and will continue to be written.  We are not going to cover all the details in one short blog post.
In very general terms, though, we can say that there was a discomfort among some in the Evangelical community about the direction of this critical study of scripture.  In my opinion, that discomfort may have had more to do with disagreements in the realm of philosophical presuppositions which impacted the academic study of the Bible than anything else.  Regardless, these disagreements became more and more pronounced, at first along largely national lines (Anglo-Americans vs. Germans) but eventually transcending those boundaries and creating a theological division within American Evangelicalism especially.  This resulted in the rise during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of a movement we refer to as fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism makes a very interesting move, logically, which is to embrace circularity and declare that certain presuppositions must be held from the start for a theological system to have validity- namely, the doctrines they identified as “fundamental.”  Then, in the course of doing theology, these “fundamentals” would appear again as the conclusions of our research.  In other words the “doctrines” of the faith were unquestionable.  This philosophical system is sometimes referred to as Presuppositionalism and was defended by longtime professor of philosophy at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia Cornelius van Til (whom I have had a slight fascination with in the past).
Two problems plagued fundamentalism, however.  One was that there was little to no internal agreement about what the “fundamentals” were, so there was constant internal bickering and division.  The second was that when you embrace circularity and use it to declare your system infallible from the beginning, its extremely hard to get anyone to take you seriously, and so the community became more and more isolated.  This is extremely problematic for a group that maintains as one of their key purposes the continued spread of the gospel.  When no one takes you seriously, its hard to spread your message.  Eventually, the need to engage the outside world became more and more apparent to fundamentalists.
The next step in the story involves two movements towards the center of this debate, one from each side of the aisle, which both went by the name of “Evangelicalism.”  The first was the movement of Karl Barth, often known as Neo-Orthodoxy, but its interesting to me that his summary of his own theology goes by the title “Evangelical.”  While Barth in many ways accepts the historical-critical study of scripture, he does so from the stance of someone who is also securely committed to Christian Orthodoxy.  In this sense, in my assessment, he challenges many of the philosophical presuppositions which had likely led to the discomfort of many more “conservative” Christians with the direction of academia prior to his time and this in turn led to a movement toward a “middle-ground” between Fundamentalism and the “Classical Liberalism” it had reacted to.
From the other side, there was a movement in “conservative” circles in the United States to become much more engaged with the broader culture once again.  This movement has become known as contemporary “evangelicalism.”  It is not monolithic and its efforts to engage its culture have sometimes been less than successful- the parallel Christian music industry is in my mind one such example.  However, the general aim of the movement seems to be in the direction of being an active part of the culture and not a self-isolating voice.  The suspicion of the academy that still runs deep in evangelical circles, then, is something that I view as part of the growing pains of this processes, and I think at least from the standpoint of evangelicals engaged in academics that I am not alone in this view.
To put the two recent trends in evangelicalism that we are focusing in on at Restless, Young, and Reforming this summer in perspective:  
As a cultural shift towards “postmodernism” takes place in the West, many American evangelicals have embraced what is known as the “Emerging” movement.  From the perspective of our discussion of engagement with the academy, this movement, often taking its cues from “mainline” critical scholarship, is characterized by a willingness to ask questions about what were once considered key doctrines in the evangelical community- Brian McLaren and Rob Bell have both earned quite a reputation in evangelical circles for their questioning of doctrines about hell and the particularity of salvation, for instance.  In the minds of many more conservative evangelicals this is going too far, and the “Neo-Reformed” movement is sometimes seen as a reaction to the “Emerging” movement (though this is definitely a caricature, it is much more complex than a reactionary movement).  The fear of many less conservative evangelicals is that the “Neo-Reformed” movement is dragging evangelicalism back into a kind of self-isolating fundamentalism.  What we are doing this summer at Restless, Young, and Reforming is considering both of these movements in depth, considering their relationship to the wider culture, the academy, and evangelical orthodoxy.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Aristotle and Free Will

Once again this topic rears its head… But two interesting connections have occurred to me based on some recent reading of Aristotle.  I have to say on the front end that this is not a topic that Aristotle ever consciously discussed- the debate over the nature of freedom post-dates Aristotle, believe it or not.  That said, I am trying to avoid being anachronistic.  My claim here is not that Aristotle argued for a particular model of freedom but that some aspects of Aristotle's thought can be useful to explaining a later idea of freedom as espoused by more existentialist thinkers.

The first idea is a distinction that Aristotle makes between two parts of human reasoning: the “mathematical” and the “deliberative.”  The mathematical follows "necessary" principles to reach its conclusions.  The deliberative part is a bit more open-ended, though.  Its principles are not "necessary", they are in some sense dependent on the goal of a person's life or existence.  They are, in other words, deliberately chosen by the individual as part of the development of that person into their individual self.

The second idea from Aristotle that I think is particularly useful is his notion of chance.  For Aristotle "chance" does not imply the kind of randomness we think of perhaps associating with the string of numbers we might get from rolling a twenty-sided die over and over again or the order of a well-shuffled deck of cards.  That kind of randomness is not what Aristotle means when he says something happens by chance.  Nor does he mean "without cause," which is often what libertarian freedom is accused of implying.  What Aristotle does mean by chance, however, might be termed "unintended circumstances."  Two causally determined chains of action cross in a way not intended by either.  The farmer plowing their field comes across a chest buried there long ago.  The chest is not there "randomly"- it was intentionally hidden there.  Nor is the farmer there "randomly"- he intended to be plowing his field.  But neither the person who hid the chest nor the farmer intended for this discovery to happen, these two paths have crossed in a way that was unexpected, creating an "unintended circumstance."

The model of free will I have found most compelling is one that I think can be greatly aided by both these concepts.  This model is one that I think is representative of how many existentialist writers think about free will, and in more analytic thinking something similar is argued for by Robert Kane.  Basically, the model argues that not every decision must be "free" in the sense of having "alternative possibilities."  Instead, freedom refers to our ability to shape ourselves, to oversee the formation of our character and beliefs.  This requires that at crucial junctures in our life, what Kane calls "Self-Forming Moments," we have the ability to choose which way we will go.  From Aristotle I think we can construct an account of how this works.  These moments arise from the kinds of "unintended circumstances" that we encounter throughout life.  In these moments where the chain of action we have taken part in leaves us entirely unprepared for the circumstance we find ourselves in, a decision must be made which will set the course of a new chain of action.  That decision is not necessitated by any of the previous actions that brought us to this place- it is a "new" moment, as it were.  Thus, we must deliberate and determine what principles will guide us through that moment.  It is in exactly these sorts of circumstances that our character is "formed" into the kind of person we are.

Friday, May 6, 2011

On Showing Sympathy, Even When We Disagree

This post is written for "The Rally to Restore Unity," a blogging event hosted by Rachel Held Evans.

Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan I heard a stirring and challenging sermon from a student here of Japanese origin.  Taking head-on the glaring "problem of evil" presented to his country and its people, he did not offer a theodicy.  Instead, in the spirit of the book of Job, he concluded that "we cannot put God in a box."  God is wild, not tame, not "nice."  We cannot control God, God does not always meet our expectations, is not always what we want God to be.  These thoughts, directly related as they were to the human crisis we were all watching unfold on our television screens, were being reworked into intellectual missiles that were fired at the very core of what we often do in theology- put God in a box.  We make God nice, we make God into what we want God to be.

As I was listening to this sermon, the cynical side of me kicked in.  I wondered about how people in the room were receiving this message.  My cynical suspicion was that they were reacting by deflecting the criticism.  I don't make God into my own image, that's what other people do.  Feeling almost certain that this was the response most of my peers were having, I became almost angry at them.  From my perspective this sermon sounded like a challenge from an evangelical pastor directed to a group of more "progressive" Christians, but I felt certain most of the students at Yale would think that it was the evangelicals, not they, who were guilty of this crime.  Realistically, I knew that if this sermon had been given to an evangelical audience the situation would have been reversed and they would have assumed that "those liberals" would be the ones recreating God in their own image.  I felt certain that this sermon, brilliant as it was, was lost on everyone in the room but myself, and that this would be case no matter where the audience was.

The immediate biblical passage to come to mind is the teaching of Jesus to remove the log in your own eye before attempting to remove the speck in your neighbors.  Very quickly we can see that moving into the famous maxim "judge not, lest you be judged."  We could rant and rave about hypocrisy (namely, my own).  But I don't actually want to do all that.  Partly, that is because I live and work in the academic community, and we survive on disagreement, on "passing judgment" as we "critically evaluate" one another's work.  While sometimes that process is overblown and out of line, I genuinely believe it can be helpful more often than not.  How do we balance taking part in that actually helpful process of engaging and constructively criticizing one another with the need to also be humble and recognize our own shortcomings?

Certainly I cannot claim to have this totally figured out (as the story above aptly illustrates).  But as I have reflected on this I think the answer has something to do with the art of sympathy.  The art of learning to see through another persons eyes, to spend time walking in their shoes, to feel their emotions and think through their thoughts with them.  This lets us genuinely understand where another person is coming from, why it is that they do and think as they do.  From that kind of an understanding we can meaningfully offer constructive criticism.  That means, I think, two things.  First, that we are offering criticism that serves some good purpose.  Its not just for the sake of being critical.  Its intentional and it aimed at helping a person improve in some clearly important way.  Second, it means that it is offered from a posture of compassion and sympathy and not from a stance of superiority or power.  We are offering the critique because we genuinely care about the person, but we are also offering it in a way that demonstrates clearly that kind of care.

Now obviously this can work with varying degrees of relationship between people.  Some of the best advice we get is from those closest to us, those who know us really well.  Not everyone we interact with, and certainly not everyone we find disagreement with, will be in that category.  But even on the somewhat sterile academic level, where we write about people we never could have known because they died centuries before us or we interact with the ideas of someone who lives on the other side of the world and whom we have never met and who will never read what we've written (but still we write, and it is not in vain!), there is a kind of courtesy expected in which we make a strong effort to really understand what our interlocutor really meant to say.  When we fail to do that and criticize them for something they themselves would not claim to believe or argue for, it is known as a "straw-man argument."  When that happens in a face-to-face encounter, its known as being dismissive or arrogant.  Either way, its bad form and shows a disinterest in the other person instead of the kind of love and compassion we are called to show to all.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

100 Posts: Some Thoughts and Changes

This blog hit a milestone recently, passing the "100 posts" mark.  That has taken about three and a half years, but if my current pace of writing keeps up, we will be halfway to our next hundred before the end of this year.  Some thoughts and a couple of changes that are coming to this blog before that gets underway:

First, I am just a tad bit obsessed with the appearance of the blog and am always trying to make it more aesthetically appealing.  I noticed recently that the side-bar was getting ridiculously long…  So decided to move some of the things from the sidebar to their own page.  The list of authors I recommend checking out has now been moved to the "Recommended Reading" page.  Also, a new page that will contain a list of ministries I have some sort of connection to and/or that I think are doing really good work (with some explanation of who they are and what they do) is coming soon.  There may also be a more formal "bio" page in the not too distant future.

Second, along similar lines, am strongly considering switching this blog to a new template/theme to change things up a bit.  Also strongly considering a move to wordpress, which is prompting an experiment that I will discuss in a moment.  If anyone has thoughts on either of these ideas feel free to comment and give me advice/recommendations.

Third, I am spending the summer working as the music director for the Barbara C. Harris Camp of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts (the camp is actually in New Hampshire).  Its going to be fun, get to spend my summer up in the beautiful New Hampshire mountains playing guitar!  Time away from New Haven and the academic life will be a most welcome break.

Fourth, while at this camp I intend to do a good bit of reading (because I am after all a hopeless academic).  This is where the experiment mentioned above comes in.  I have been pushed lately by a particular friend and by reading Rachel Held Evans' blog to reconnect some with my Evangelical roots.  Prior to coming to Yale I considered myself more or less an "Emerging" Evangelical in contrast to the Neo-Reformed crowd.  When I came to Yale I found that I was just as comfortable in mainline circles (perhaps confirming suspicions that I am in fact a liberal) as I was in the nebulous "Emerging" crowd, which incidentally doesn't really exist in New England, so I "officially" made the switch to considering myself a mainliner and part of the Episcopal Church, a denomination I had been exploring for a while.  As I am reconnecting with my Evangelical roots a bit, I am realizing that while I have interacted with the ideas of major thinkers on both the Neo-Reformed and Emergent side of the equation academically quite a bit over the years, I have read very few of the popular level published works of most of the representative thinkers, guys like Piper or Driscoll or Kevin DeYoung or Brian McClarren or Rob Bell.  So one (though certainly not the only one) of my major reading goals for the summer is to actually read through several books by these guys.  I intend to blog a bit about that, and both as part of keeping this a designated "project" and to experiment with wordpress, I have launched a new blog for that purpose that I am calling "Restless, Young, and Reforming" as a response to the "Young, Restless, and Reformed" montra embraced by Kevin DeYoung and other Neo-Reformed leaders.

Fifth, another summer goal, since I am working in music, is going to be to make a few recordings of some of the songs I have written over the years and either put them up on a new music page or create a demo cd.  Either way the goal is a little shameless self-promotion with the possible end of a coffee-house gig or two to lightly step into the music scene here in New England (which is sadly much smaller than the booming music scene in Birmingham).

Sixth, and finally, I am reflecting a bit on future educational ambitions and coming to a couple of realizations.  One is that virtually every major project I have worked on has been in some way related to Philosophical Theology, including my conference presentations, a recently published article, and the vast majority of the posts on this blog.  Second, I am realizing that as much as I love the Old Testament, I think archaeology is boring and possibly a pointless endeavor, I don't like studying grammar of any language (ancient or modern), I enjoy reading comparative religious literature only in translation and have absolutely no desire to ever translate an Akkadian or Ugaritic scroll/inscription myself, I find reading about source/tradition critical theories somewhat interesting but the work that goes into sorting out various sources bores me tremendously, etc.  Basically, everything that goes into serious Old Testament research and writing exegesis is stuff I would rather leave to someone else and let me read their conclusions.  I am much more interested in synthetic projects that involve working with the text constructively after all that de/re-construction has already been done.  So… what I am beginning to realize is that perhaps my interest is not so much in being an Old Testament scholar proper but in being a Philosophical Theologian who has a particular interest in working with the Old Testament as a source… This will probably not come as a great surprise to many, nor will it substantially alter the shape of this blog.  But thought I'd share my recent self-evaluative reflections with anyone who might pass this way.

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