Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Western Dialectics VS Eastern Dialectics

I read something the other day that got the 'ol noggin thinking again (imagine that!). Anyway, the discussion got me thinking about the difference between western dialectics and eastern dialectics. What is a dialectic? Simply put (and this probably oversimplified) a dialectic is a statement that contains a thesis and an antithesis. For example, "I am a genius" and its antithesis, "I am not a genius." Or, perhaps in a more relevent context, the thesis: "God is love," countered by an antithesis, "God is not love." Ok...perhaps too oversimplified, but you get the idea.

In western dialectics, there is a tendency to blend the thesis and antithesis into a synthesis. What does this mean? Let's go back to my God example: Thesis: "God is love." Antithesis: "God is not love." Synthesis: "Given certain conditions, God might be love." While this way of thinking was certainly popularized by Hegel (and his students), I see a common thread all the way back to Aristotle. We can find strains of this reasoning in T. Aquinas and even Augustine. Why a synthesis? In the western mind, perhaps it's difficult to leave an antithesis an antithesis. Or, even more acutely, maybe the thesis does not reflect reality, or even a truth. So we need an antithesis. But reason shows us that maybe the antithesis doesn't get us any closer to reality, or a truth. So we try to blend these together in a synthesis. We do this in every day conversation. We might call it compromise - if two parties disagree, we try to find a solution that reflects a given from both parties. Though the real-life example is arguably a little different than the philosophy, you can see how we use this form of reason in everyday living.

So what is the Eastern dialectic? Well let me be forthright and admit: I am not an Eastern thinker. I can appreciate Eastern thinking, but I was schooled, nurtured, and raised in Western dialectics. So this is an attempt to flesh out Eastern dialectics. The book I was reading was discussing Buddhist dialectics of life and death of God and no-God. Pretty deep stuff - as I understand it, the Eastern dialectic is formulated with a thesis and an antithesis; however, the difference arises in what is done with these two forms. Where the Western thinker is not comfortable with a thesis and antithesis, the Eastern thinker finds completion in the formulation. Without a synthesis, the Eastern thinker affirms the paradox (did someone say Kierkegaard???). What does this mean? Let me try to be a little more creative:

The Eastern thinker finds a peculiar beauty in paradoxical "conclusions" because they reflect the "true" nature of things. Where the Buddhist finds comfort in the one truth of the universe (that all things change - nothing is static), the Hindu finds comfort in all is Brahmin. Each is an internal paradox - internal because it explains the outside world. The Buddhist says that "all is nothing" and "nothing is all" because it reflects the ever-changing, ever-flux of the universe. The Hindu says that "all is Brahmin" and "Brahmin is all" because the cosmic matrix is ultimately the same, the one, the Brahmin. The thesis and antithesis are strangely not that different. Where Westerners think a thesis and antithesis have to polar in relationship, Eastern thinking exposes the flaw in such argumentation. Eastern thought reflects the beauty, the strange aesthetic, the ultimate one-ness and shatteredness in reality. Eastern thought shows us that we are not necessarily thinking clearly in polar opposites, where if we challenge such thinking (in that the thesis and antithesis are closer in relationship), we can begin to touch that strange aethetic.

Does this translate into Western conceptions of God? Let's do some language games to put it to the test: Thesis: God is an active redeemer. Antithesis: God is not necessarily an active redeemer. The Eastern thinker stops here to analyze. What are we really saying in these two statements? They appear polar, but let's challenget that. Are they really? What are we saying in the antithesis? We're saying that God doesn't have to be an active redeemer in order to be God. Does God retain God-ly characteristics if God doesn't redeem? Does God have to redeem to be God? The Eastern thinker is fine with this analysis (I hope!) because it reflects what might be God in a changing universe: God might be a redeemer, God might not be a redeemer. Perhaps, and this is a guess, this sort of gets at why Buddhism doesn't center on a God - what's the use? Let's go a bit further: is there a way of synthesizing such an argument? Let's attempt it: God can be a redeemer, if God chooses to be, but God does not have to be a redeemer in order to be God. Does this get us any closer to what we might think of "truth"? Maybe so, maybe not.

What do you think? Have I butchered Hegel? Or, have I committed an offense against the Buddha? Or Shiva, or Krishna? Haha...outta this group I only care what Kierkegaard thinks...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Dynamics of God's Self-Revelation: Static or On-going?

In religious discourse, the idea of God is either central (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc) or cursory (Buddhism, etc.). The Christian conception of "God" is of a personal agent who is actively involved in redeeming humanity through the work, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus. Christian doctrine, for the most part, attempts to flesh out what it means to say God's self-revelation, or Jesus. We can discuss Jesus in historical terms (a man from Galilee who was crucified by the Romans about 2,000 years ago). Or, we can discuss Jesus in theological terms (God's agent who worked/is working to redeem humanity). Or, we can discuss Jesus in a space/time continuum (Jesus turns human history on its head and gives it a new trajectory). These are hermeneutics to describe (albeit in a limited way) God's self-revelation.

The Enlightment project attempted to interpret Jesus and the Christian message in a rational, coherent, and complete way. The post-modern world shows us that there is a lot of insanity, a lot of irrationality, and a lot of fragmentation. Is there relevence for the Christian message? I affirm with my Christian brothers and sisters that there is, if in a way that is relevent like never before. What do I mean? I propose that God's self-revelation is dynamic, on-going, and meaningful. Is it "limited" by the work, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus 2,000 years ago? I don't know. The plurality of religious beliefs shows us that we cannot affirm an emphatic "yes" because that logically places limits on God. Can God show God's-self through other cultural ways? Perhaps, again, I don't know, and I know that I can never know that answer. It's God's business. However, I do affirm the message of Jesus as being relevent and meaningful to all people, bar none. So, while I do not discount the possibility of God's revealing God's-self to other peoples in other ways, I say that for me, it is through Jesus.

I read recently a great metaphor: in order for complete relevence, something must touch you where you bleed. Where do you bleed? Jesus touches me where I bleed. I don't mean this in some weirdly pietistic way, but in a completely worldly and other-worldly way. When I read a beautiful poem, when I see a beautiful piece of art, when I am moved to tears by music, I know that this man, Jesus, experienced a similar thing. In short, Jesus touches me where I bleed because he experienced the same pain, angst, and heartache that I experience. Jesus breathed the aesthetic of beautiful poetry (Psalms), perhaps created a beautiful piece of art, and certainly was moved to tears by music. That, for me, is the most relevent aspect of divine: solidarity with my human condition.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Individualism and Post-Ideological Thinking: A Response

Thank you to a couple of my readers who offered constructive criticism of my previous posts on post-ideological religion. I offered Killing the Buddha as a potential reference of this way of thinking. If I understand the criticisms correctly, they are saying that post-ideological religion runs the risk of collapsing into individualism. And, though this isn't stated, I assume (hopefully correctly!) that this would eventually lead to religious solipisism. In lay terms, I'll pick and choose what I want to believe, when I want to believe it, and what I believe is always subject to my personal whim.

I will admit that this is possible. But, that said, it is always possible in any religious "system." Let's face it: societities, churches, communities, religious groups, temples, etc. etc. are formed from individuals. Religion in its "purest" form is a group of believers who congregate as individuals-in-community. The essence of religion is experienced as individuals. We cannot get beyond these few simple statements : I don't "know" what you really believe because I'm not you. And, you don't really "know" what I believe because you are not me (though you might have an idea if you've been reading my blog ;). Thus, for me, the distinction I make between individualism and group orientation isn't necessarily a negative/positive shift. Rather, it's trying to see a group for what it is: a cohesive group of individuals. Solipisism is always a risk - but communal experience hopefully prevents such thinking.

When I speak of post-ideological religion, I don't draw a distinction between individuals and groups. Rather, I'm looking for authenticity, either as an individual or as a group. I can delude myself as an individual just as much as I can be apart of a group that's deluded. Or, I can be as authentic in my experience as part of a group as I can as an individual. So why go to Church? Well, besides the obvious (to worship, to partake in sacraments, etc.), I go more to the "man/woman is not an island" thinking. No matter how introverted you may be, you need other people at some point. Jesus knew this - frankly I think Jesus has some introverted tendencies, yet he flourished around other people. What's the point? We gain insight, renewed strength, and religious vigor from worshiping with other people. Though we may not all get along all of the time, we are called by God to act as a community.

So, what's my concise response? Well, I believe community is central - central to spiritual/religious growth, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it. However, we have to be realistic enough to admit that this is done as individuals. Though we can share experiences, we never existentially experience another. This is a careful distinction, I think. It preserves the integrity of the individual as well as the group. Each has their rightful place in life - and it's important to prevent blurring the two. We must function as groups but think as individuals (lest history show us what happens if we ignore this imperative).

What do you think?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Killing the Buddha and Post-Ideological Religion

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If you are serious about studying religion, you need to read this book. Granted it's not the most scholarly production in the world - no footnotes, et. al., but this book paints a new form of scholarship. If you thought you'd seen raw authenticity in religious thinking, 'you ain't seen nothin' yet.' I'm absolutely engrossed in this book - but I've surfaced long enough to post some connections with post-ideology.

Killing the Buddha, and its offshoot website, works on a simple premise. If you meet the Buddha and the road to enlightenment, kill him. Why? Because that's not the real Buddha. This applies to Judeo-Christian religions as well: if you think you've found "God," you probably haven't. In order to find the "real" God, we must do away with any preconceived notions of what God must be like. This smacks of Paul Tillich's "God beyond God" -type theology. But, that being said, it's crucial to post-ideological thinking. God's name has been used throughout history for many things good and many things evil. We humans try to encapsulate God into what we think God should be - and that's idolotry. God is beyond our small minds - and we must always keep that in mind.

Killing the Buddha advocates striking down this type of idolotry and seeking a more authentic religious experience. This experience is grounded on the belief that there is nothing wrong with being critical. For example - why do children die? There is no reason or justification for these tragedies. Should we let God 'off the hook' because God is God? Or, as God's children, are we not more authentic to go with our emotions and cry out in pain. Should we not "show" God ourselves in our pain? It is, at least, a more honest relationship with God. I think the moderation practiced by most Christians is faulty at best. What do I mean? If we're happy, we should pray prayers of thanksgiving and joy. If we feel pain, what is wrong with telling God in the most authentic way we know? Don't misread me: I'm not advocating cursing God. Far from it. Rather, I'm suggesting that we tap into our honesty and attempt to have a real and authentic relationship with our Creator.

Maybe these are the first steps toward thinking post-ideologically about religion (baby steps?). Anyway, if you've taken the time to read all of this post, spend another 30 seconds telling me what you think. Peace.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Post-Ideology and the Necessity of Cultural Freedom

As we are all (arguably) culture-conditioned, there are certain things that we do/think that are based on our cultural sensitivities. There are few, if any, things that are universally accepted as "true" and "right" throughout modern and historical cultures (for example, murder is generally accepted as wrong, though self-defense and war are necessary evils). For this reason, we must admit that we are, to some degree, culturally-conditioned. We are products of our environment. Let me give a short example. As Americans, my wife and I were subject to several major culture shocks while living in Scotland for a year. One of the major issues we had was body space. As Americans, there is an appropriate distance that people should keep from you (save that of family, spouses, etc.). Not so in Scotland. People don't think much of being in your 'personal' body space. It's quite unconfortable at first, but you seem to get used to it (I didn't really get used to it). Now, for as progressive as I consider myself, I realize that this is a cultural sensitivity that I cannot prevent (or treat for that matter). This model can be extended into many other things.

Now, in order to get closer to 'post-ideology,' we must try to set our minds free from cultural sensitivity (I've got to learn to let people into my personal space?). In all seriousness, we have to first recognize our place in our own culture, respect the differences of those in other cultures, and attempt to transcend these differences. This applies to culture, religion, sensitivities, social customs, and a concept of 'right' and 'wrong.' This said, what does it have to do with 'post-ideological' worldview? It means that people will no longer be conditioned to certain uniform ways of thinking, it means that people will not be manipulated by governments, politicians, etc., and it means that people will exercise the awesome freedom to think for themselves. This is closer to what it means to say 'post-ideological' - that you are, in some sense, condemned to freedom (to borrow the phrase from Sartre). Letting go of cultural ideology means learning to think outside of our own little box. If cultural identity defines who we are, we are nothing more than tools of the state - and that's no good. Better yet, religious identity proves a more slippery slope. That's what I hope to blog on tomorrow! Stay tuned!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dealing with the Lovely Ignorance of this World

Great title, huh? That said, you might see a monograph in about 20 years with the same title - if you do, buy it, it'll be my book. Seriously, I think we should make fighting ignorance a theological specialty. There seems to be so much ignorance out there (read carefully: MOST, IF NOT ALL, TELEVANGELISTS).

I've had my hope in humanity severely tested this week (long story that I don't want to repeat here, but you know the feeling). Anyway, it got me thinking - is there a way to fight ignorance in this world? Knowledge isn't always power (so throw out the cliche) because people don't always listen, or think, or analyze. Let me be more specific. I've suggested on this blog before that we should strive to be post-ideological. Yes, I know, it's a philosophical enigma because saying one is 'post-ideological' is an ideology itself. Okay, we can dispense with that little enigma because it doesn't get us anywhere. Whereas the logic may be slightly flawed, I think the idea is important. We need to transcend the things in this world that bind us. I'm not talking about just propoganda, but the more subtle things: like things that we accept as "normal" or "good" are, in fact, okay and moral. When a preacher or televangelist says the words "God thinks" or "God will do this, or that," we should be instantly suspicious. How do we know what God thinks? Just because we have this book which we accept as holy scripture, we do not have the right to use it as a weapon against others. How dare we use something as beautiful as God's narrative of salvation to inspire fear, cause resentment, and condemn others. I think part of becoming "post-ideological" means suspecting anything that is not entirely part of God's narrative of salvation.

I'd like to do a series of posts on what I mean becoming "post-ideological." This post is small beginning, a foretaste of sorts. What do you think? A good idea? Something you'd like to see here? If it's a bad idea, what would you like to read about? As always, your comments are greatly appreciated.

Sorry for the Brief Hiatus

As life sometimes gets in the way, I've not been able to update my blog in recent days. Sorry! Hopefully now that things are a little more settled, I'll be able to resume daily/semi-daily blogging. Thanks to those who check back often!

Monday, June 26, 2006

(A Short) Christian Appreciation of Buddhism

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While I am thoroughly a Christian (perhaps not always orthodox, but I'm always a dox of some sort), I do enjoy studying other religions, including Buddhism. It is perhaps my favorite of other religious movements because it reminds me of my own beloved Protestantism. Like Luther and Calvin, the Buddha sought a middle way in Hinduism. He rejected certain aspects of Hinduism and affirmed others. Granted, there are many differences in these reformers, but there are some striking similarities. I'll save that for another post. Today I want to focus on a short appreciation of Buddhism.

Buddhism and Christianity share many similarities. Granted, I cannot speak authoritatively for both, but I can appreciate Buddhism as a Christian. The Buddha, like Jesus, taught self control. The body is something to be mastered, not something that the world would have master control over. Both religions, that is assuming Buddhism as religious thinking, not simply philosophical thinking, taught (after their founders) that there is more to this world than the simple, empirical, and often painful existence. In other words, there is a metaphysic of sorts. For the Christian, that metaphysic is the narrative of the Creator God who redeems the creation through Jesus. For the Buddhist, that metaphysic is the knowledge of one's place in the universe - and how to set oneself free from this ever-changing world. While it may be argued that both teachings support escapism (i.e. don't worry about this life because there's something better waiting for you after death), I think the real understanding is appreciating the metaphysic as grounded in earthly life. What do I mean? While the hereafter is important, and deserving of consideration, the here-and-now demands our attention.

The devout Buddhist learns how to train his / her mind in ways that Westerners often completely miss. I'm one of them. I wish I could train my brain to enter a zen-like state after only a few minutes. I wish I could learn the "empty" brain exercises. I wish I could harness my thoughts and feelings in the same way that the Buddhist monk is often able to. Jesus' own teaching isn't that far from this. Jesus often spent much time alone, in the desert, contemplating, praying, and fasting. As an aesthetic, Jesus trained his mind to be alone with God. There is much to learn from this, and much to be appreciated in the Buddhist.

What I find the most intreguing of Buddhist teaching is the release from samsara, or the eternal cycle of life. This cycle encapsulates the dharma and karma that a being accumulates in multiple lives. This is no simple doctrine of reincarnation; rather it is a cycle of pain - a cycle of death, if you will. This cycle is broken only with buddha (or, literally, "enlightenment"). The knowledge of past lives and future lives, coupled with supreme knowledge, allows the individual to die into nirvana, or eternal nothingness. This nothingness is peace, it is eternal bliss in the void. It is the supreme version of unconsciousness. While I don't pretend to understand samsara, I am interested in studying it. I think it can lead to a better, even deeper, understanding of what I affirm as a Christian - that the life hereafter doesn't repeat - that this is it, this is our time to shine as the children of God - that we need to make the best of this life - and that we can hope for eternal presence with God. How can understanding the Buddhist help me in my Christian walk? There is always a place for understanding, for contemplation, for entertaining new ideas, for teasing out radical new thoughts. And, maybe, in that moment of enlightenment, I'll figure out what this life really means.


Friday, June 23, 2006

N.T. Wright and the Historical Jesus

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"...rigorous history (i.e. open-ended investigation of actual events in first-century Palestine) and rigorous theology (i.e. open-ended investigation of what the word "god," and hence the adjective "divine," might actually refer to) belong together, and never more so than in discussion of Jesus. If this means that we end up needing a new metaphysic, so be it. It would be pleasant if, for once, the historians and the theologians could set the agenda for the philosophers, instead of vice versa."

-- N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.

N.T. Wright is, arguably, one of the great living New Testament / theology scholars. His breadth of knowledge is absolutely amazing. And, in my humble opinion, he is one of the few who gracefully move between the fields of New Testment scholarship and academic theology. In other words, he does what we all should do - use both fields to the betterment of the Church. Unlike Francis Watson, who struggles to hold the two together, N.T. Wright writes lucidly in both spheres.

Wright is at his best in historical Jesus investigations. The above quote gives an idea of how he tries to mediate the position between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. His critique of some of the great historical Jesus experts, A. Schweitzer and R. Bultmann, is sharp and insightful. Wright understands that reason tends to side on either the faith or the historical side of the argument. But, like the good Anglican, Wright seeks the via media, or the middle way.

Now, let me be honest: I'm no N.T. Wright expert. But, if I understand his argument correctly, I believe his point is that we Christians can maintain our integrity and intellectual authenticity in affirming the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. This is appealing for obvious reasons. The Jesus of faith without the Jesus of history is not only ungrounded, but irresponsible. Wright is right (pun intended) - the historical Jesus makes the Jesus of faith alive, fresh in our minds. And, this is a lot more radical of a thought, the Jesus of history cannot be separated from the Jesus of faith. In some sense, we must have "faith" that any figure existed in history - simply because we haven't met him/her. But that aside, the Jesus of history was a man who inspired his disciples and followers to have faith in him. What was it about the Jesus of history that caused his followers to continue a movement that has lasted for two-thousand years? I think you get my point...

I recommend Wright's analysis of Christian origins. He has the amazing ability to grapple with many differing arguments, all the while offering an insightful way to walk the via media. Though I'm no Wright expert, you can bet that I'll be at my alma mater next year when he is on lecture tour. I can't wait.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nietzsche and Eternal Return

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"The alternatives of creating or dying off remind one of Nietzsche's remarks about life and the Will to Power. Nothing can remain stable. If a living thing does not increase, it must decrease. There is no such thing as the Will to Live. What is alive does not need to strive for life. What is not alive cannot strive at all.

In order to create, man must be willing to face near destruction, to let go of everything he has. Only by doing this is it possible for something new to come into being, for somthing to be created. Without destruction or near destruction there can be no creation."

--Joan Stambaugh, Nietzsche's Thought of Eternal Return, 53.

Where to begin with Nietzsche's concept of time? Of what use is Nietzsche's concept of eternal return? I'm reminded of a t-shirt that has this picture of Nietzsche in one corner with the quote, "God is dead." In the bottom right corner is an image of God with the quote, "Nietzsche is dead." Ah, the irony. Anyway, in Nietzsche's diluted universe, there was no such thing as death. That's right, Nietzsche is still alive, somewhere, forever. This moment is here, forever. There is no "past" per se and no "future" per se, but only the now in existence. We have lived such a world forever, and will continue to live in this world forever. In other words, you have read this posting for all time, and you will continue to read it forever (now, that's a scary thought...).

Now, besides this unempirical, flamboyant, and downright arrogant view of "reality," maybe Nietzsche was on to something. What do I mean? Well, reading Nietzsche, if it doesn't totally depress you, will open your mind to limitless things. We take for granted this thing called "time." We think on a horizontal plane. Nietzsche takes this horizontal plane, spits in its face, and throws it in the trash. Nietzsche is looking for no mere metaphysical conception of reality, but rather the reality behind reality. He throws out the normal understanding of time for the metareality of nothingness. The abyss is time - it is nothing and it amounts to nothing.

That's where the Will to Power comes in. The only thing we can do in this life, now and forever, is to assert our will over the universe. The ubermensch is he who understands this sad fact - that the only coping mechanism in the universe is to assert one's own will. Pretty depressing stuff, I'd say. I can't even make it outside to exercise, muchless assert my will over the universe.

Now, what does this have to do with Christian theology? Or, more importantly, what does theology have to learn from Nietzsche? While the rantings of Nietzsche are often too vague to comprehend, I think there is something to be learned in his method. A classically trained philologist, Nietzsche sought to perfect his method of getting at the root of things. He tried to take nothing for granted. A "rugged individualist," Nietzsche tried to be as intellectually honest as possible. He firmly believed that he was able to experience reality without dillution (whether he did or not is open to debate!). He was willing to take whatever steps necessary to arrive at the "truth."

In this way, I think it's imperative for Christian thinkers to take risks, to take whatever steps are necessary to arrive at the "truth." Nietzsche can teach us to be honest with ourselves and others. While he's certainly not the model for Christian understanding, there is definately something to learn from his method. I think Christian thinkers should study Nietzsche, even at the risk of becoming severely depressed!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Myth and the Garden of Eden

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"...If we still had to believe that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman on earth, the whole story would be hopelessly discredited...And for the ordinary person to call something a myth is simply to say that it is not true...[Adam and Eve] are real, not because they were actual people, but because they tell us something profoundly true about ourselves. After all, Adam is just the Hebrew for Man with a capital M. He's all of us. The Genesis story simply holds up a mirror to life, so that we can see ourselves in it."

--Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, But That I Can't Believe!, 38-39.

To non-specialists, the term "myth" carries a negative meaning: something that is told (and re-told), but did not "actually" occur. The word "myth" is thrown around in common language to mean "falsity." However, in the study of religion, "myth" can be quite useful if we really try to flesh out the meaning. In this sense, what J.A.T. Robinson is trying to convey, "myth" conveys a certain metaphysical truth about reality and the human experience. Myth is not concerned with what "really" happened or didn't happen. How do we ever know something happened? We don't, unless we experiened it ourselves (and even then it's open to speculation and perspective). Rather, myths get a deeper meaning in a narrative, a deeper truth than the story at hand. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the creation story is a functional myth, a story told with a greater truth underneath. What would it look like?

The Garden of Eden, presented as myth, would mean that we used to have communion with God. At one time, we were not estranged from God. And yet, something went awry. That something was in us - and we call that "sin." Adam (or males) and Eve (or females) walked in the presence of God. But now, because of human frailty, we no longer walk with God. The creation story takes on a new narrative: a narrative of God's interaction with humanity - and the beginning of the plan of salvation. God is presented as Creator - the Creator. This shows us a metaphysical truth of God - that God is active in human history, creating and willing things into existence. But there is more: God allows humanity to struggle. Why? Adam and Eve gain strength in this struggle, though it is not readily apparent in the text. What J.A.T. Robinson is showing in his use of the "myth" to explain the creation story is that we all embody this particular story. The narrative of creation is embodied in us; we have all fallen short of the glory of God. But, God is re-creating us in God's own image. We are all Adam; we are all Eve. That is point of creation as myth: the story's functional method, myth-as-narrative, enjoins us into the story. We are apart of the whole of creation.

Now, that's an appreciation of J.A.T. Robinson's theology, but not a critique. I'm no strict literalist, but I can't help but feel that something is lost in this story. There's no nitty-gritty - the Genesis narrative talks about Adam struggling with the earth to grow food and Eve struggling in child-birth. Creation as myth doesn't always embody the humanity of the narrative. The focus is so much on the metanarrative that the human side is lost. That said, is it possible to regain the humanity in myth? Perhaps, but I'll return to that in a future post.

The strength of looking at a narrative as a myth is twofold: first, as aforementioned, there are higher truths that are best explained with simple truths. A story engages our imagination in a way that encourages to find the metaphysical truth. And second, a myth doesn't discount the possibility of literal, factual, "historical," truth. More clearly, a myth says that a story could have happened that way, but it didn't necessarily happen that way. So, there is value to expressing such a story as myth - so long as we define what we mean by "myth."

What do you think?

Elie Wiesel's Night: A Short Response

Having just finished Elie Wiesel's Night, I thought I'd offer a few reflections. It is impossible to convey the absolute horror of this book. To those who deny the Holocaust - read this book, there is no way someone could make this stuff up. It is a testament to the human struggle to survive no matter the obstacles, a testament to the importance of having something to live for, and having the fortitude to say "never again."

Wiesel's book is short, just over 100 pages. It is a quick read, perhaps possible in one sitting. The prose is primarily short sentences, with quick jabs of action and past/future flashes. The narrative is written autobiographically, with great detail in some of the most painful and gut-wrenching episodes. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that these events really happened. Though there has been some discussion as to how the narrative has changed from the first edition (published over 40 years ago) and the most recent edition, the harsh reality is this: Wiesel was a victim, and as such, he has the right to tell his story. Yes, it is a perspective, but it is a far closer perspective than any of us can offer. For that reason, it is historically valuable and credible, despite certain narrative changes that may have occured (with translations, it's anybody's guess).

Theologically, I think this book is necessary for anyone who takes the discussion of God seriously. Wiesel poses the question: how is belief in a God of compassion and mercy possible after the Holocaust? It is a real and tangible question. It is laced with many implications. Should we reconsider classical theism? Should we re-think how God acts in human history? What is to be learned from the Holocaust?

I recommend this book - but only to those who have a strong stomach. Though the novel isn't all graphic, it is an emotional circus. It's one of those books that will expand your mind; it will help you question what is real and what is valuble. And, as to be assumed, it will remind you that your life isn't really that bad.

If you haven't read Night, you should. I'm going to put it on my long list of "musts" for theology students.

Friday, June 16, 2006


I've been doing some surfing recently (not real surfing, I'm not that talented) and I've come across some pretty good resources. You might want to check them out.

Killing the Buddha is an interesting website for those of us who are (painfully) transcending ideological labels. This site isn't particularly scholarly, but it will definately make you think. The articles are engaging, for example "Jesus and I Broke Up," "The Temptation of Belief," and "My Holy Ghost People." This is not recommended for the easily offended. Thanks to John for bringing this site to my attention.

CNN reports that the Vatican has approved a new translation of the Mass in English. This is one of most drastic changes in the Roman Catholic Church since the Council 40 years ago.

Have a great weekend - and enjoy reading these sites!


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Thoughts on Death

Yes, it's a bright, warm, late spring day, and I'm here thinking about death. Sick? No. Morbid? Ok, maybe a little. But it's an intellectual thing that really grips me. If you think about it, death is really the question of human existence. I'm talking in plain, simple, human terms - all people have understood that they, too, will one day die. It is the only certainty in life (besides taxes, but that's a different rant). Death is the existential question - why am I here? and where am I going? Is death the final scene in the play of life?

Some, including myself, may argue that death allows us to live more fully. If this was forever, would you really feel the need to seize the day? Rather, death offers us perspective, even if it is a rather morbid perspective. Death allows us to cherish this life and what it has to offer. Rather than the ultimate enemy, death is simply a natural stage of development. That is our connection to nature - that like the birds, the ants, and the plants, we too will expire. There is something oddly beautiful in this cycle - the cycle of life presents us with a paradox. Our time is limited, so what are we going to do with it?

Anthropologically, one can argue that "religion," or even a belief in "God," is a natural, existential reaction to the horror of death. But, I don't think it is. Rather, a yearning for "God" is similar to death in that it allows us to live more deeply and more fully. Now, maybe I'm biased because I do think there's a God out there, but I also think that it is this God, a personal agent, who takes care of us in death. We think that because of freedom, we are independent creatures. We take for granted that this heart keeps thumping and these lungs keep inhaling. We aren't quite that independent - we still need the Creator as Sustainer. In the same way, it is a loving God who takes us in the arms of love as we pass from this life to the next. And for that, we can gain a little comfort - that the sting of death isn't the end, rather it is the beginning of something greater.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Elie Wiesel: 20th Century Mystic?

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"...every question possessed a power that [is] lost in the answer. Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him...Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don't understand His replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers...you will find only within yourself."

--Elie Wiesel, Night, pg 5. (emphasis mine)

Out of the rubble that was the Holocaust arose a contemporary prophet that deserves our attention. Though Wiesel is a Nobel Peace Prize receipient, he deserves a new hearing with every generation, lest we forget the attrocity he lived. If you haven't read Night, you need to. This is a piece of contemporary literature that will stand the test of time, unlike the scores of junk currently for sale at the book store.

Though Wiesel is Jewish, I'm going to elaborate on this quote to expand some ideas in Christian theology. Some thoughts: this quote summarizes an early Christian dictum: faith seeking understanding. We have faith that God is active in our time and space, though it is hard to see at times. God interacts with us, though we do not understand God's message to us. It is a demanding love, a love that was bought with the cross, a love that is full of grace. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are in solidarity with this point: faith is seeking understanding. We desire God to speak to us today.

The final sentence in this quote, "The real answers...you will find in yourself," is very important. Though it may sound like a gnostic pitfall, I argue that it is not. Rather, God has given us all a conscience, an ability to reason, an ability to live for and with God. We must, in this time of fragmentation and worldly non-sense, come to our own answers. We are guided by the love of God into presence with the divine, but we must live amongst one another here on earth. We must learn how to love our brothers and sisters. We must never let the Holocaust happen again. And yet, it has, many times. Some of the well known: Bosnia, Rawanda, and now Sudan. We let people systematically kill one another with the fear that we'll step on some toes (talk about political crap). I'm all about non-violence and diplomacy, but Wiesel is a voice who cannot be ignored - we mustn't allow this to continue. Instead, how do we reverse this terrible equation? How do we systematically encourage peace?

The answers do remain buried in our souls until we die. It is our duty to search deeply and search for these answers. This is done, as Wiesel comments, with dialogue with God. We must ask God questions - and, in return, await God's answer. Wiesel is right, the real dialogue occurs when we ask questions. That is authentic existence. Have the honesty to ask the hard questions. Jesus did - "Father, why have your forsaken me??"

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Feminist Theology: Why I Am a Feminist

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[NOTE - This is a highly opinionated post. There is much to be debated with what I am going to say. I welcome constructive feedback - if this post is going to infuriate you, my opinion is probably not worth your blood pressure. However, if you're open to a different opinion, then by all means, read on.]

As a man, I readily confess that I am a feminist. I do not endorse all of the things that feminists do, believe, and profess; but, then again, I do not endorse everything that Christianity does, believes, and professses either. Rather, I see myself as a working feminist, someone who firmly believes in the egalitarian movement, in the abolishment of gender roles, and in the fair treatment of all people. And to that end, I am willing to take a public stand, to profess that these are ideals that I hold to. I claim Jesus, another man, as my example of how to be a male feminist.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not labelling Jesus a feminist; I'm not saying that he would endorse such a term. But if feminism, minus all of the political baggage, means that women are equal to men, then I think Jesus would endorse this. Here's what I mean:

Jesus had a lot of contact with women. He ate with them, he spoke openly with them, and he shared his vision of the Kingdom with them. Jesus risked his public image often (just think of Jesus approaching the woman at the well - his society interpreted this as soliciting a prostitute, yet Jesus treated her as an equal). And, finally, perhaps the most striking of Jesus' relationship with women: ALL four NT gospels openly state that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Let the point sink in: the first to experience the new Kingdom, the resurrection of Jesus, were not his twelve male disciples, but rather women who were close to him. Coincidence? Hardly - in my opinion, all of these things culminate in early Christian teaching. What does this mean? It means that Jesus' vision was radical for many reasons - and one of those was that women and men are equal. Not just equal in the eyes of God, but equals on earth as well. Jesus' radical vision, watered down in orthodox Christian teaching, now points to the underpinnings of the gospels. Women were a vital part of the early Church - it's time to reclaim that vision.

Now, I don't exclusively label myself a feminist. I am many things: I am a Christian, I am a married man, I am a student, I am a progressive, and I am a feminist, amongst other things. To me, living the Christian life means more than going to Church, confessing sins, and partaking in the sacraments (though all of these things are vitally important). It means embracing the radical vision of Jesus, a vision that transforms society. It is partyl an earthly vision, one that is nitty-gritty, one that teaches that we should love our enemy (!), and one that calls us to reform. It is our job to speak (LOUDLY) for those who have no voice. That MAY include women, children, the oppressed, the poor, the mentally ill, etc. etc.

Being a Christian feminist means accepting responsibility for the mistreatment of women in history (and even today). It doesn't mean taking the fall for others' actions against women, but rather it means asserting the agency of women who have been run over by the powers-that-be. It means elevating women to the equality of men (in social status, in pay, in rights, etc.).

Don't get me wrong. Our world is perhaps one of the widest-reaching equality movements ever in human history. Women have more rights than perhaps ever before. But we still have a long way to go. There will always be inequality - it's a sad fact of human existence. But as Christians it is our duty to embrace the vision of Jesus and fight for others.

I welcome constructive criticism, comments, and affirmations.


Monday, June 12, 2006

I Broke Down and Saw the Movie

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What can I say? I broke down and saw the Da Vinci Code over the weekend. Besides being a very long movie (2.5 hours), it was decent. Great? No. Decent? Yes. Worth seeing at some point? Yes. To me it seemed like a boring Indiana Jones flick. The plot was average, and it had some overly-corny aspects, especially the end.

Now, for some theology. Would someone please contact Dan Brown and give him a lesson on Constantine, and more importantly, the Council of Nicea? I mean, come on, there's a difference between theological musing and downright ignorance. What the movie had to say about the Council of Nicea was just downright ignorant. Sadly enough, I'm not sure the general audience would've realize how ridiculous this part was.

My wife, a trained historian, laughed her way through the movie. Needless to say, I joined her on many occasions - people were looking at us, but hey, if would have enjoyed it much more if they were thinking critically.

Now, for the affirmation. While I don't subscribe to Dan Brown's final claim (I won't give it away for all of you who plan to see it at some point), I think the overall-message deserves some critical acclaim. I think he's right in that Christianity has, for too long, been a power-hungry, controlling, and manipulative institution. We Christians deserve liberation from the oppression of "religious" powers. For example, women have been severely oppressed in the Christian tradition. It's time to get over it. Why are we still debating female ordination? Are we really that childish? All children of God deserve to be God's ministers. So, Dan Brown points the way to a liberating Christianity, which I agree with, though I think his method is, in the final analysis, severely flawed.

So, the overall critique: see the movie, if not for anything else, then a good laugh!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Religion and the Media - Part IV

This week, in US News and World Report, several editorials weigh in on the recent coverage of the Da Vinci Code. Ignacio L. Gotz, Stessin Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Hofstra University, gives a very interesting editorial with the claim, "It would be very unusual for Jesus to have been unmarried." This I take a little issue with; agreed, it might have been strange. But, there were many traveling aesthetics / prophets / teachers who took a vow of celibacy. Sure, if Jesus was a craftsman, then it would've been a little strange for him to not have had a family; but there was no "condition" that they be married. It doesn't matter to me if Jesus was married or not, but I think it's unfair to say that Jesus would've been very "unusual" to not have been married.

Gotz is right to point out that "references to Jesus's close relationship with Mary Magdalene are numerous and consistent and should not be ignored." This I wholeheartedly agree with. It's in the text: Jesus was close to Mary M. In fact, I'm almost convinced that she (and perhaps other women) were just as much disciples as the 12 men. Let's face it: Christianity has a long history of marginalization - so it would make sense that Mary M. could have been a disciple of Jesus.

And finally, Gotz states that Jesus's Jewish disciples did not and would not have "attributed divinity to another Jew." Now, I think culturally (and religiously) Gotz is right. However, the followers of Jesus knew there was something special. Sure, there were plenty of healers running around the Roman backwater, but the disciples knew there was something different about this Jesus of Nazareth. However, what is most telling is that, according to the NT, the disciples don't "figure it out" until after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospels are riddled with clues that point to exactly this: only in hindsight did they "get it." So, while I think Gotz might be right, I'm not sure he stated the entire story in context.

Granted these are short editorials, but I think there's room for clarification.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith

"...could there be faith in the risen Jesus without research on the historical Jesus?...With those canonical gospels as inaugural models and primordial examples, each Christian generation must write its gospels anew, must first reconstruct its historical Jesus with the fullest integrity, and then say and live what that reconstruction means for the present life in this world. History and faith are always dialectic for incarnational Christianity..."

--John Dominic Crossan, "Historical Jesus as Risen Lord," in The Jesus Controversy: Perpectives in Conflict

As I understand him, Crossan wants to make a clear differentiation between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. This paradoxical duality is meant to serve historical method in a way that almost splits the humanity of Jesus. Understood in an orthodox way, the humanity of Jesus is just as important as the divinity of Jesus. But Crossan wants to take the argument elsewhere. While I admire his historical integrity (I'm married to a historian, so I have to), I do question whether this split is appropriate 1) to the text and 2) to the body of believers. While one need not "believe" if Jesus lived or not (we have plenty of Roman records that state that a Jesus of Nazareth was put to death around 30 CE), the real question is of Jesus' position in 'religious' matters. If we split the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, do we depreciate both? While I think there is plenty to be learned by drawing this distinction, I'm not sure that in the final analysis this is entirely helpful to either history or faith.

What do you think?

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