Monday, 30 November 2009

Dissatisfaction

Christianity is marked by a general sense of dissatisfaction. I think this is found in two key areas. The first is a dissatisfaction with the empire of humanity. Best viewed as a perpetual ziggurat of Babel, the empire of humanity is a constant exploitation of the other through implementations of hierarchy that do nothing other than glorify those at the top. We're all caught up in it, but the Christian message is opposed to it, dissatisfied with the activity as means and as ends.

The second is much less appealing. I don't think Christianity is meant to be satisfying for the Christian, especially if satisfaction implies happiness. A Christian is not called to pursue self-happiness. Instead, a Christian is meant to pursue Christ. For some, that means refreshment from the living water and sustenance from the living bread (very Johannine of me) but that's not the message for all. Some of us already have refreshment, sustenance and comfort. For the rich Christian, Christianity is difficult and demanding. No wonder the rich man went away sad. The gospel account doesn't mention if he became a Christian or not, just that he went away sad.

Even in forgiveness, Christianity isn't satisfying. Without going so far as revenge, even a sense of fairness or justice is denied to Christians. Christ demands forgiveness. Rowan Williams' lectures on prayer during Lent 2009 included the observation that in the Lord's prayer, we ask God to imitate us with regard to forgiveness. God will only forgive us if we forgive others. Christ demands that Christians love their enemies, not demand justice from them for ourselves. We can stand up for justice on behalf of others, but not for ourselves.

The call of Christ is terrifying. It's difficult and onerous. I don't think there's much satisfaction in it.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Office Analysed

Do you like The Office? Does it speak to you about the place where you work? Then read this great analysis and wonder if you really want to keep working the way you do.

It's certainly come at the right time for me.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Christian Practice

Listening to a discussion on Ernst Bloch recently I learned an interesting detail about 1st and 2nd century Christianity. Church history has rarely been interesting to me, at my detriment I'm sure, with clear exceptions along the way. This is one of them.

Jane Shaw, while speaking about the difference between Christian practice and Christian belief, identified that conversion as a result of belief statements rose to prominence during the Reformation. In contrast, the early Christian converts were often accepted as catachumens for a period of up to five years while they demonstrated their faith (e.g., taking care of widows, visiting the sick, feeding the poor, etc.). During this time they weren't allowed to participate fully in worship services.
If a pagan wished to become a Christian he was given some elementary instruction in the fundamental doctrines and practices of the Church. He had to show by his conduct that he was in earnest about the step he was about to take. So far, he was only in the stage of inquiry, and was not counted as a Christian at all. He was allowed to be present at the first part of the Mass, but he was dismissed immediately after the sermon.
Catachumen, The Catholic Encyclopedia.
I have a natural hesitancy to wholly agree with this practice, since it's alien to me. It also seems to stand in the way of people coming straight to Christ, but I doubt whether the sincere catachumen was disuaded by this. They were clearly welcome into the community, but not completely. I hear echoes of Paul's admonishment about the communion meal in 1 Cor 11, but it seems like a misdirection[1].

Conversely, this practice indicates that a person isn't counted as a Christian until they have been instructed and have demonstrated the activity of the instruction. That's something of a sober warning to the post-Enlightenment Christian. Many of us became Christians on the basis of a statement of faith[2] and have followed it with religious disciplines of bible reading, prayer and meeting together.

Widows and orphans, anyone? We have a lot to learn.


1. This passage seems to play with the "body of the lord" language between the bread and the Church. The "unworthy manner" appears to have more to do with failing to recognise the needs of fellow believers than it does with failing to recognise the bread as Christ's body.
2. "I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins, I renounce evil" in more traditional Churches and "I accept Jesus as my personal lord and saviour" in others are still just statements of doctrine and belief.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Top One Reason

But I'm realizing that I don't have ten arguments for why religion is harmful. I don't even have 57,842 arguments.

I have one.

I'm realizing that everything I've ever written about religion's harm boils down to one thing.

It's this: Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.

It therefore has no reality check.

And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self- correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality ... and extreme, grotesque immorality.

It's an interesting read. Christina goes on to discuss the consequences of her objection, including political oppression, justification for war, vulnerability to fraud and quashing science and education. She draws from her own experience and observations to identify religion as one cause for these evils and more.

It must be said right here that her criticism is not targeted at organised fundamentalist religion with approval of personal spirituality. There is no way to construe her argument to apply it that way. Her criticism is that the foundation of religion is the religious experience and not a rationalist deduction. There is no rationally verifiable evidence of the "invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die" and therefore religion has no firm foundation.

She argues from a rationalist position that religion is not rational and is therefore invalid. With respect to Christianity[1] I agree with her proposition, but not entirely with her conclusion. The proposition is that religion has no rational foundation. Her conclusion is that it is invalid, and this needs some qualification before I'll come to the party.

For Christianity, the good news is that she's right about the foundation of faith. It's not rational. Rational knowledge is based on empirical, systematic deduction and conclusion. It's thoroughly integrated into the system of life that we've constructed and which we permit. What it doesn't permit is the introduction of anything non-rational, any kind of intervention from outside human knowledge.

In his analysis of Christianity as a formal example of a truth, Badiou indicates that a truth "punches a hole in knowledge." That is, it can't be integrated into the existing set of knowledge. In fact, a truth destabilises existing knowledge because of its resistance to integration. Rationalism, therefore, has a problem with an interruptive truth. It must do one of two things: reject the truth or shift entirely away from its old foundation. That's the nature of truth: it's foundational to the subject. When a truth intervenes, the foundation shifts. From this point of view, I agree with Christina. Christianity doesn't have a rational foundation.

But does this make it invalid? Yes, but only to the situation it interrupts. The situation of humanity (again, to draw from Badiou) is one of genetic survival. Most natural human behaviour can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations, typically those things which are beneficial for the perpetuation of an individual's genes. Christianity interrupts this pursuit by insisting upon love as the driving force. Love, the self sacrificing act, does not encourage the evolutionary process for the individual - it interrupts it. It interrupts the relentless pursuit of self indulgence and capital. It interrupts the natural impulses of the human endeavour and the consequent impulses of human civilisation. To that end, Christianity is invalid. The human system cannot account for it and rejects it.

Although that's the most significant part of my response to her article, there are some specifics I wanted to briefly remark on.
There's no reality check saying that their actions are having a terrible effect in the world around them. The world around them is, quite literally, irrelevant. The next world is what matters.
This is a good critique of an end-time mentality (and metaphysics). It's predicated on a Big Other who will punish the wicked and reward the faithful, and who will only do it when all is said and done. It's also in total opposition to the strain of Christian thought that says that the Church should be the embodiment of the kingdom of God in the here and now. The gospel message is not about the afterlife, it's about the way to live now. To miss this is to miss the point of Jesus' preaching. Christina makes the same case for suffering and war. I make the same response.

It makes religious leaders and organizations uniquely powerful in the political arena -- because their followers are typically taught from a young age to implicitly believe whatever their religious leaders say.
This reminds me of Kierkegaard's critique of the Danish state church. He lamented that it mediated God through the state, that God was not accessible to the individual except through church officials, all of whom were appointed by the monarch's hierarchy. Conversely, the Christian approach is one that is universally addressed. Everyone has the same access to the same truth and is challenged to decide for themselves if they will be seized by it. The same applies to her claims of vulnerability to fraud.

And so on and so on. My principle conclusion is that her position is from within the situation, that it cannot account for the foundation of Christian faith and thereby brands it as illegal[2] or invalid. Her criticisms of religion that revolve around a final judgement and the hierarchical mediation of God are worth reading. They're my criticisms as well. Ultimately, however, her inability to account for Christian love as an interruption into the present human existence is the weak point of her article. Christianity is an interruption, intended to be manifest in this life as the practical act of love which was taught by Jesus and which defines Christianity.


Footnotes
1. I can't really argue on behalf of others. They can do that for themselves if they wish.
2. She doesn't use this word, but I take it to mean illegal in the sense that it can't be accounted for in the system.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

In veritas there is bluster

I listened to a Veritas Forum debate this week, and could barely contain myself from tearing out my eardrums with a rusty spoon. The topic was allegedly Christianity vs Scientific Naturalism (debate and audience questions). I had expected something of a debate. Instead, I heard Craig use the formal structure of a debate, and Hardin use the informal structure of musings. Eventually, the debate collapsed into a series of alternating testimonies about how Craig became a believer and how Hardin became agnostic.

Hardin's ramblings didn't cohere into a single argument. And Craig announced that he was going to evaluate scientific naturalism and Christian theism by the same criteria, but after his attack on naturalism he decided to use an altogether different method for Christian theism. No one in the recording picked up the discrepancy.

If I thought I was disappointed by the conflicting methods, I clearly was ill prepared for the audience questions.

The audience appeared to be your typical group of intelligent evangelical Christians, capable of speaking articulately but only from within the evangelical framework. Questions like "If you were to die tonight, where would you go?" seemed out of place[1]. Craig clearly had the audience on his side, whereas Hardin had only the minority. Nevertheless, both handled the situation with cool heads and good humour.

In the end, no one won the debate. Craig's use of a formal debating structure made him sound more coherent and capable, though. I'm left to wonder about the choice of speakers for these Veritas Forum debates.



1. I think I asked this question as my senior yearbook quote. Thankfully, things have changed.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Why Darwin is no threat to Christians

According to some, Darwin and his followers represent a significant threat to Christianity, that somehow it removes the foundation for faith and jeopardises the very existence of God. In this, the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, I didn't want to let the year pass without making some kind of comment[1] on the issue.

First of all, it seems that there is an assumption within some debates about evolution, that somehow the human being of today is the pinnacle of evolution, that everything that has led up to the development of humans and has now stopped. This seems to be a contradiction. If evolution is a slow process that is facilitated through successful breeding, and breeding continues as much as it does, then evolution can't have stopped. So we can't assume that humans of today are the pinnacle. This is not a problem for the whole of Christianity, it's only a problem for the imago dei section of theology. Although I'm not well read in this area, I know enough to know that the definition of human is not described at a biological level. Although the discussions of capacities and so forth are all supervenient on the biological, I don't think this is an immovable object.

More important than the consequences of human breeding is the use of the origin of species (created or evolved) as the foundation for Biblical authority, or lack thereof. In other words, if God created humans as is then human religious endeavour has some definite intersection with the divine and is therefore a certainty on which faith can be established. It follows that if the foundation can be rocked, perhaps by insisting that evolution is correct, then everything on that foundation is also in trouble. The problem is that Christianity is not founded on the origin of humanity. Rather, Christianity is founded on Christ. Christ called his followers to hear his words and put them into action so that they are like a man who builds his house on a firm foundation, and not a sandy foundation. In this way, the biological origins of humanity have no influence on Christian foundation. Creation... evolution... neither of them make a difference.

The astute logicians in the audience will probably object by asking about the authority of Jesus. But this is the point of faith. There is no rational ground to it. We can't start with quantum physics and derive our way to "Jesus is lord" and nor should we. It is a leap of faith that takes us from one ground to another. To use biological origins is a misdirection.

This leads to the most significant point that I want to make. It's a distraction. Arguments about creationism and evolution do nothing to help the Christian mission. Christ told his followers to do lots of things, including preach the gospel and to live the gospel. Arguing about the origins of the universe was not, as I recall, on the agenda. Spending our time on it does nothing other than take our time away from more pressing matters of discipleship.

It seems to me, then, that the most Christian response to the question of Creationism and Evolution (and all the variants between the two poles) is to ignore it. It makes no difference to faith and no difference to Christian mission.


1. This post is not an exercise in apologetics. It's merely a couple of observations and thoughts on the issue.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Trinitarian Properties

If you're a Christian and you've not read Halden's post on The Trinity and Attributes, then you need to. He poses a question about precisely what is shared between the three persons of the trinity. This question is particularly useful.
But, what would happen if we didn’t just assume that the divine persons must be identical in every way except for the illusive categories of relations of origin? Why must we assume that the Father, Son, and Spirit must be exactly the same in all of their characteristics in order to be equally and fully divine?

I found it especially interesting that the perspective he criticises is the one that starts with the Father (and the Father's attributes) and then ascribes them to the Son and the Spirit. From that starting place, I think his argument carries a lot of weight. However, the proper starting place should really be Christ, the Son. If Christ is the revelation of God, then the Father is like the Son. Anything visible in the Son is true of the Father because the Son defines the Father.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Ideal Biblical Format

Plenty of people have a preferred translation of the Bible. I like the NRSV for the New Testament, and the Tanakh for the Hebrew Bible. But if there's one thing I'd really like to see, it's a New Testament formatted like the Tanakh.

Forget the double columns, just a single column. Is that too much to ask? A single column, NRSV New Testament.

If you happen to see one, leave a note in the comments and tell me where I can get my own copy.

Edit: One more feature I'd like to see is that the books are arranged in chronological order of writing. This is the one that tells me I would have to publish it myself. Such is life.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Christ the first and last

Faith is, without question, axiomatic. To have faith is to believe truths, despite there being no evidence to support it.[1] What you are about to read are some thoughts on an axiom of Christianity. This won't be a series of posts; it will be a category. I've added a tag for it so that you can find them all.

I think the first axiom of Christianity is also the last axiom of Christianity: Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. This is a broad statement, but one which is the starting place for Christianity. It's the place to begin for Christianity because Christ is the defining signifier of Christianity. Christ defines Christianity. Also, Christ is tangible and revealed. Prior to Christ, God was not revealed, but a wholly transcendent being who becomes man writ large; like a magnifying mirror, enlarging the virtues of the observer. This is the kind of God that looks like an Israelite to the Israelites, that looks like an Aztec to the Aztecs, etc. Little wonder thatn Feuerbach wrote, "theology is anthropology."

With Christ, however, is a revelation that transcends particularity, rather than transcending materiality. Christ is material, a human being of flesh and blood. And Christ is particular, a male Jew. But Christ is not restricted to male Jews. It is the Christ-ness of Jesus which enables this transcendence over the particularity of Jesus. It is the declaration that Jesus is the Christ that defines Christianity.

So what do we mean by Christ? And what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Christ? Christ is the revealed, tangible God. To look at Christ is to look at God. I think there are two ways to read this. First, and I think this is the more common approach, is to take the attributes of God and to say that Christ has those attributes. So we take the properties of omnipresence, omnipotence, and so on, and then say that Christ has those properties. In doing this we are exposed to Feuerbach's critique. We define God in terms that are magnifications of our own virtues, and then we say that Jesus is like that. Jesus soon starts to look like the perfect man (strong, handsome, wise, and so on).[2]

The second way to read it is to say that what is seen in Christ is the definition of God. God is defined by Christ, not the other way around, because Christ is seen and God is not. The properties and characteristics of Christ are foundational for his followers, and also for God. In the paraphrased words of a friend of mine, "If it looks like Christ, then it's of God." And therefore, if it doesn't look like Christ, it's not God and probably the result of some human imagining. This approach takes away some of the speculation associated with theology, with the discussion of a transcendent being. Placing Christ at the centre of faith, and of the life of faith, is a defining move. The world, and everything in it, is now defined in relation to Christ and not in relation to the observer.[3]

And this is the point of this axiom. In taking Christ as the first and the last, we de-centre our lives. Rather than building up a phenomenology of conscious experience or idealism, we start with the assertion that Jesus is the Christ and begin to work outwards from there, applying it to the way we read the Bible, the things we believe about God, and the way we live. The Christian life of faith is not founded on empirical evidence about Jesus[4] but on this axiom. Christ is the first and the last, the foundation of Christian faith.

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1. That's not, however, the same as there being evidence or argument to disprove it. It's possible for an axiom to be self-contradictory, or for some other evidence to disprove it. But it's also possible to conceive of an axiom with is neither provable nor disprovable (e.g., concerning the existence of God).
2. This is the Jesus that looks like a surfer carpenter. Just because Jesus was a tradesman who associated with fishermen, it doesn't mean that Jesus was the local pinup boy, tanned and muscular. Take a good look at tradesmen from peasant cultures sometime and see what I mean.
3. I wonder whether Christian writing should therefore be only Christology, and not lumped together as theology.
4. You can recycle or burn your apologetics books now.