Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Faith, Kierkegaard and Underpants Gnomes

Faith is a problem. It's not rational. It can't be argued for in the same way that we might argue for a political position or a deal on a new car. Faith works under a different logic. Kierkegaard's famous book, Fear and Trembling, delves into this problem. So this is a little of Kierkegaard 101, I'm sure, but I'm going ahead with it anyway.

Kierkegaard introduced the concept of the leap of faith. For him, it wasn't the same concept that we tend to think of today; a leap off the edge of a cliff onto unseen but solid ground. A bit like this scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In fact, if you dig around YouTube you'll see more than a few uploads of this scene and plenty of those with some commentary about a leap of faith. This, however, isn't Kierkegaard's metaphor at all. He proposed the leap as being like the leap of a dancer. The dancer leaps high off the ground, up into the air, and then lands nimbly where they wanted to be all along. The idea is that a person wants to get from where they are, to where they want to be, but cannot see any direct way to get there. So they must leap into the heavens, so to speak, disconnecting from the ground of rationalism and into encounter with God through faith, only to land again precisely where they want to be. Kierkegaard insists that the mechanism of faith is a mystery, but that it's only possible through the individual taking the leap of faith away from rational planning and into the heavens. The form of faith, according to Kierkegaard, is to give up rationalism, leap into the divine, and then receive the thing believed for in the first place.

The Underpants Gnomes from South Park have the same logic. They want profit, and they start by collecting underpants (disconnect from rationalism). Not knowing how it will work, they industriously labour to collect underpants in the faith that it will bring profit.

One of the boys understands it, and is ridiculed by another. It's the same with Kierkegaard's exposition of faith. Some people understand it, and the rest ridiculed him. Nevertheless, the form of faith is the same for the dancer and for the Underpants Gnomes. Phase 1: Act. Phase 2: Mystery of faith. Phase 3: Blessing received.

Kierkegaard's point, therefore, is that the mystery of faith requires that the individual is grounded in the choice to leap, grounded in the act of faith itself. Faith can't be attained by arguing for it. Faith is its own ground. Unfortunately, this sounds as silly as the Underpants Gnomes. Faith demands that the individual leave behind everything, even the very ground on which they base their life, in order to encounter the divine and receive the blessing.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Mother Earth is a Dirty Bitch

From a recent talk recorded by the BdBC, in which he touched on the topic of the Japanese earthquake:
I think that, if anything, Japan demonstrates that, yes, we are killing Mother Earth but Mother earth is a dirty bitch who doesn't care about us. - Zizek
Sure, he's going for laughs but at the same time he isn't. All too often we anthropomorphise the world around us and assume that it has human qualities like intent. Mother Earth is just thermodynamics at work, and we only think of it as evil because it interferes with our own plans and intent. The ancient goddess Fortuna is the most successful attempt at anthropomorphising the forces beyond our control, because she was thought of as fickle and capricious. Today, we'd probably call her a sociopath or a psychopath. She does what she does, without regard for the ones affected, and for reasons inscrutable to us.

So yes, Mother Earth is a dirty bitch who doesn't care about us, whether we experience an earthquake or a refreshing cool breeze in Summer. "Mother Earth" is the contingency of thermodynamics personified by us. We need to stop looking for the "behind the scenes" of reality, because there's nothing there. All we have is the scene.

Monday, 21 March 2011

What makes a theologian

Roland Boer has posted in the last fortnight about the credentials of Scott Stephens*, the online editor of the ABC's Religion And Ethics portal, and a recent interviewer on ABC's Compass. Clearly, there's some bad blood between Roland and Scott, and I don't really want to get involved in what is probably best left between those two.

But it makes me ask myself the question, "What really makes a theologian?" I know I think of myself as an amateur theologian, so the question is quite personal to me.

In one sense, any words about God are theo-logy; and anyone who does this over a sustained period could be called a theologian. But this opens the gate for a lot of bad theology. Maybe we should require formal qualifications, but I'm sure any student of theology has encountered well-qualified theologians that we think are doing bad theology. Is bad theology a good enough reason to call it non-theology?

On the other hand, are there some unqualified people who actually do good theology? Probably. I'm sure there was a time before qualifications in which people did good theology, so there's no reason that it can't happen again.

Maybe the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In other words, as long as the theology is good I'm not fussed about the qualifications; with the strong qualifier that the process of attaining qualifications should be the right training for a person to produce good theology. It's a probability game: qualifications are more likely to result in good theology, but it's no guarantee either way.

So then we have to ask; what makes good theology?

* I should also confess that I know Scott and studied in his classes about eight years ago. I'd call him a friend that I've not seen for a number of years. I don't know Roland, but I usually enjoy reading his blog and have one or two snippets of his writing in my library.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Striving with no guarantee of success

Reading from Luke 13:19-29 today, I'm reminded that there is an obligation on Christians to make an effort to do the difficult thing: follow Jesus, with all the sacrifice and service that this entails. In the passage he insists that we strive.

‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.

It's not enough to sit back and enjoy the kingdom of God, as though "once saved always saved" were true. The kingdom demands a consistent and repeated effort of Christians.

And I don't see any indication of "success" at all. It's not even a matter of misunderstood success; we can't just say that we succeed by having a happy family rather than the false success of big house and a nice car. No, it looks as though it's the sincere intention of effort that is important in Jesus' message. Sincere intention of effort, and not just sincere intent; that's a necessary part of Christian being.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Gospel before Jesus

Reading Mark 8:27-38 today, and comparing it against the equivalent in Matthew and Luke, it struck me that only in Mark does Jesus mention the gospel message.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (35)

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus only talks about losing one's life for Jesus' sake. In some texts, it's only for the sake of the gospel and not for Jesus' sake.

What's Mark getting at? Or, what did Matthew and Luke miss? Can it be that even Jesus saw the gospel as more important than himself, not only in life - since this is the moment that he began to teach about his own death - but also in reputation? It's one thing to die a noble death that's remembered, and another to die an obscure death for the sake of something larger. I think we see in Mark that the gospel message must not be obscured by the person of Jesus. Given the other pointers in the text around v35, there's no way that we can say that Mark wants the gospel message ahead of Jesus. But suppose that's what Jesus wanted. Have we not given preference to Jesus the person over the gospel message each time we talk about a "personal relationship with Jesus" at the exclusion of our responsibilities for action?

It sits better with us to keep the two as inseparable - the man and the message. And that inseparability holds true for Christians - that we and the gospel message must be one and the same.