Category Archives: Philosophy & Religion

We prove Jesus by our love

(I’m fairly sure that few of you actually read these lengthy quotations and that’s fine; I continue to post them for my own future reference.  And, quite frankly, it’s only 340 words or so—why does it make a difference if it’s original material or someone else’s?)

Tonight I finished Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Real Jesus, which was a pleasure to read.  The last chapter and the epilogue were particularly rewarding.  I wish I had read them before I finished preparing last Sunday’s sermon—they would have been helpful.

Johnson has this to say about Christian apologetics—whether historical, logical, philosophical, or what have you:

From the start, Christianity has been rooted in the paradoxical claim that a human being executed as a criminal is the source of God’s life-giving and transforming Spirit.  From the start, this “good news” has been regarded as foolisness to the wise of the world.  Christianity has never been able to “prove” its claims except by appeal to the experiences and convictions of those already convinced.  The only real validation for the claim that Christ is what the creed claims him to be, that is, light from light, true God from true God, is to be found in the quality of life demonstrated by those who make this confession.

Only if Christians and Christian communities illustrate lives transformed according to the pattern of faithful obedience and loving service found in Jesus does their claim to live by the Spirit of Jesus have any validity.  The claims of the gospel cannot be demonstrated logically.  They cannot be proved historically.  They can be validated only existentially by the witness of authentic Christian discipleship.

The more the church has sought to ground itself in something other than the transforming work of the Spirit, the more it has sought to defend itself against its cultured despisers by means of sophisticated apology, the more also it has missed the point of its existence, which is not to take a place within worldly wisdom but to bear witness to the reality of a God who transforms suffering and death with the power of new life.

Christianity has credibility, both with its own adherents and with is despisers, to the degree that it claims and lives by its own distinctive identity.  This means, at a minimum, recognizing that Christianity is not measured by cultural expectations but by the experiences and convictions by which it lives.  A church that has lost a sense of its boundaries–that is, a grasp of its self-definition—can only recovering it by reasserting its character as a community of faith with a canon of Scripture and a creed.  (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, pp. 168-69)

This isn’t a call for academic laziness or anti-intellectualism, but to not to try and justify faith on terms set by the wise of the world.

I suppose the notion of Jesus not being “provable” might be troubling to modern evangelical minds, yet there is something profoundly moving (and certainly Biblical) in what Johnson has to say.

I always enjoy authors who cut through the usual left-right/liberal-conservative jibber-jabber.  Johnson appears to be one of them; N.T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas are two others.

More than one “kind” of truth?

(Off-the-cuff thoughts on a Saturday night.)

When the creation accounts, the Exodus, and the Exile were in turn challenged for their historicity [by the method of critical history which arose out and was the essential tool of the Enlightenment], Christians sometimes practiced strategic defeat: this or that aspect of the Bible could be relegated to myth or legend, but the “important stuff” remained true.

What was seldom noted, however, was that both attackers and defenders had accepted the same definition of truth.  The greatest triumph of the Enlightenment was to convince all parties that empirically verifiable truth, in this case historical truth, was the only sort of truth worth considering.  (Luke Timoth Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, p. 60)

Even many (most?) Christians have a hard time grasping the notion of truth being anything other than that which is empirically verifiable.  My knee-jerk response to the above paragraph is What other kind of truth could there be?

I’m sure he’ll provide some answers later in the book.  But the author makes an interesting point nonetheless.  The problem with many of the debates that Christians engage in these days—abortion, 6-day creation vs. evolution, to cite two examples—is that we participate without first questioning whether the very ground rules by which we are operating in these debates are acceptable.  The fact is, we tend to debate on Enlightenment terms.  Johnson will argue (I suspect) that perhaps those ground rules should not be acceptable to Christian—at least not to the exclusion of others.

The problem with Intelligent Design, for instance, is not the argument that the origin of the universe is in an intelligent being.  The problem is (perhaps) that ID tries to operate within a purely empirical framework against a “foe” which has historically been the one to lay down its own rules—ID has entered the fray by accepting and working under terms with which it ultimately may not agree.

UPDATE: There’s more: after I clicked “publish” on this post, I continued reading the book.  After the above quote, Johnson briefly (and simplistically) outlines four responses of the church to Enlightenment empiricism (or rationalism or modernism), one of which he calls “active/resistant”, in which pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism falls as well as modern-day Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism (which, I guess, is my tradition).  Johnson has this to say:

The active/resistant response is the most obvious and visible.  It regards the challenge of modernity (and therefore of historical critical inquiry) as a threat not only to specific biblical passages or particular tenets, but to the entire perception of the world given by faith.

…The active/resistant option would like to think that it is defending tradition against the corrosive acids of rationalism.  But in its fundamentalist version, the conservative stance is profoundly paradoxical, for it seeks to root Christian convictions precisely in the historicity of of the biblical accounts.  By so doing, it finds itself co-opted by the very framework of modernity it is sworn to oppose, for it accepts the crudest form of the correspondence theory of truth as its own, and it enters into the debate seeking to ground the truth of the Gospels in their referentiality.  (pp. 61, 62)

Seems my thoughts weren’t that far off of Johnson’s.

What does the common good look like?

From the Center for Public Justice (via):

The view seems to be that in public life we are essentially identical and must be treated the same. No business may refuse to serve us.  And since government must serve all equally, private groups supported by government also must serve everyone equally.

But this public conformity concept of the common good is unsustainable.  It is a new secular theocracy.  Against it there is a strong commandment.  The commandment is the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects religion from government imposition—protects not only religious belief but also religious exercise.  It protects doctors whose conscience forbids certain procedures and it protects religious charities when they insist that only applicants who share their convictions can join their staffs.

When government honors religious exercise in this way, some citizens will have to go to another doctor’s office instead of this one, and some citizens will find they cannot get jobs with some nonprofits.  Not being welcomed everywhere seems an intolerable imposition to the proponents of uniformity.  But it is the real consequence of protecting religious freedom.  There would be no need for the constitutional protection if religious freedom did not sometimes require some people to give way.

We must face the reality.  America is home to several moral communities.  The government should not be used to enforce a single code of behavior that denies the deep religious convictions of many people and institutions of faith.  The common good that the government must foster and protect is not homogeneous but includes diverse contributions from a diverse civil society.  The common good is comprised of multiple colors. (link)

It’s about the U.S., but I think it applies here, too.

An election must be nigh, take 2 (a.k.a. John Stackhouse says it better)

John Stackhouse says it better than I did:

Mr. Duceppe seems to be unhappy about people running for office who “share an ideology, a narrow ideology.” But surely most people who enter politics do have one or another ideology, and of a quite particular sort, that motivates them so strongly that they undergo the rigors of political life.

Furthermore, one might think that someone who spends most of his political life trying to achieve a single goal–removal of Quebec from the Canadian confederation–could be characterized as having “a narrow ideology.”

. . . but it is apparently the correct narrow ideology, one that corresponds with modern times in Quebec–during which, if Mr. Duceppe had his way, only his narrow ideology would count, and anyone else’s would be properly set aside. (Link)

Indeed.

Postmodern

It occurred to me today that a person is born into or grows into a worldview—it’s not simply a choice someone makes. In other words, I have strong postmodern tendencies not because I thought that postmodernism is cool and I’m going to join the club, but because that particular worldview makes sense of the questions and concerns I already have for whatever reason.  I grew into it through reading and interaction (relationship), not through a specific moment of conversion.

In my experience, it’s difficult to make the choice to change one’s view in this regard. Someone with modern tendencies isn’t likely to make a conscious choice to jump ship to postmodernism. And someone who is largely postmodern would have great difficulty reverting to a modern view of things.

Why is this important? Because while disagreement with a certain worldview is certainly acceptable, the call to “not be” modern or postmodern (that call is usually strongest against postmodernism) because of this reason or that reason may not be realistic. It may simply not be possible to make that choice.

That said, one could extend that line of reasoning into other areas which we may be uncomfortable with. But discomfort does not necessarily mean what makes us uncomfortable is untrue (but I’m not saying it’s true, either! There’s the postmodern, for you.)

Asceticism

I…stumbled onto a basic truth of asceticism: that it is not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose.  Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person.  It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society — alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels — that aim to make us forget. (Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, p. 23)

What are you left with in the end?

A chat I had with my brother, relating to my on again, off again epistemological crisis (edited to fix double posts and chronological problems caused by online lag):

Marc: Moses and Elijah and all those old guys apparently had an unfair advantage.

andrew: why

Marc: Because God spoke to them…or so it says in the OT…

andrew: right. but who says their experience was any different from ours – they just interpreted it as God whereas we may say it’s depression or science or bad digestion…

Marc: stupid post-enlightenment thinking. Everything needs a rational explanation.

andrew: ?

Marc: Whereas they would have put a divine spin on things, we explain things away rationally or scientifically. Probably why you hear more about miracles in Africa than in the western countries.

andrew: so no way of knowing which is better

Marc: I suppose.

andrew: all different shades of the same colour

Marc: Is it?

andrew: isn’t it?

Marc: I suppose if God’s behind it all…But if you explain it away scientifically or rationally without giving props to the Almighty, then the Almighty becomes less necessary…

andrew: that’s just God-of-the-gaps. Who says God isn’t in and behind all of it – science and rationality too?

Marc: Well, nobody, I suppose. Except maybe Michael Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

andrew: blowhard fundamentalists.

Marc: indeed. is it possible to not be a fundamentalist, though? what about fundamentalist anti-fundamentalists? That’s the problem with postmodernism: it can always pick itself apart, leaving nothing much.

andrew: and that’s ok – at its best, postmodernism or deconconstruction is epistemic humility.

Marc: But what are you left with in the end?

andrew: you mean?

Marc: what is left once everything is decontructed, at least in terms of meaning and value?

andrew: love. it’s undeconstructable.

Marc: Wow. That’s a very beautiful answer.

andrew: it’s not an original thought though – Derrida* and Caputo** talk about love as the undeconstructable

*Jacques Derrida: the “father” of Deconstruction.
**John Caputo

Religion vs Spirituality

Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell; spirituality is for those who’ve been there.

I happened to catch a guest on last night’s The Hour state the above.  I didn’t watch the rest of the show, nor did I catch who that particular guest was.  I can’t seem to get that information from the website, either (what a mess it is!)

The quote intrigued me and it’s been running around in my head all day.  I’m not sure what I think of it.  It all depends, of course, on what one means by “religion” and “spirituality”.  For the guest, “religion” meant Christianity.  George Stombolopoulous (the host) had just asked him if he was a Christian, and the guest responded with the above.  I didn’t listen to the rest of the interview, so I never found out if maybe he was, in fact, a Christian by traditional definitions of the term.

I guess it’s all in what you make it.  For some people Christianity is about not going to hell; for others it’s about recognizing that we live in a messed up world and God is doing something to fix it.  It could be religion or spirituality, depending on what it is for you, on what you do with it.

Religion is the rule, not the exception

McKibben quotes philosopher Erazim Kohak in The Age of Missing Information:

“Of all the illusions of the world of artifacts and constructs, the most facile and most palpably false is the claim that the awareness of God’s presence—in our inept phrase ‘believing in God’—is the preaching of certain individuals, an opinion contigently held be some members of the species. The obverse is true. It is the blindness to God’s presence that is exceptional. Humans, as a species, throughout the millennia and all over the globe, have been worshippers of the Holy. The awareness of God’s presence is and ever has been the most persistent specific trait of our species.” (p.93-4)

Why is it that philosophers whose first language isn’t English always use the densest and most difficult phrasing? Do they never learn the simpler versions of words and phrases, going directly to the obscure?

Anyway, a translation for those who don’t wish to read it a second time slowly: Humans have always had a sense of the Divine (call it what you will). Atheism is the exception in the history of humans.

Richard Dawkins and his ilk might take exception to this (I don’t know). But it’s pretty hard to argue the point, given that every recorded ancient civilization seems to have had some kind of worship as part of their day-to-day life.